Rationality in the Time of Gunfire

He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madame Manec, Etienne; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, “I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come.” He pauses, fumbling to translate. “The song, light of the moon?” She almost smiles.

“Are You There?” All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (emphasis added)

And then I found water in my eyes. How similar is it to the rain that falls outside, I do not know. Where rain is tasteless it is often salty. But it does not matter. They may be fiction, figments of fickle dreams but they found each other. A meeting that is a thing of beauty in the midst of a wretched war.

In a time saturated with generic posters from Nicholas Sparks movies, I worry that there is a strong tendency to overly romanticize the passage I quoted above. The thing with quotes is that you shower a particular part of the text with emphasis—put it on a pedestal, so to speak—and inevitably you lose at least some of its context. And at this point so early in this post, I would like to come out clean and admit that, contrary to common protocol, I started writing this review with a fraction of the book still unread. I found that quote that beautiful that I just felt like I have to write what I feel about it. Right. Now.

For every bit of Doerr’s skill, all the words in that quote could not begin to convey what or why I found it beautiful. I do not feel any guilt opening this post with a passage from the final stretches of the book. Can you really read the early stages of the book without thinking that they will meet? This piece of text does not matter. What matters (and what makes it beautiful) is how they got here.

And, just in case you need it spelled out loud, this passage is not beautiful because it speaks of romance in any way. Heck I don’t even know if this will blossom into one before the story breathes its last. He is German, part of the army invading Saint-Malo, while she is a blind French girl forced by circumstance to be in Saint-Malo at the time of invasion.

At this point, I think it is proper to admit that my interest (and horror) at the two world wars is more than casual. However, this book has dragged into my consciousness that my knowledge about them is horribly tainted by movies and pop culture. Just considering the second, it is so easy to divide the participants in black and white. Like highlighting certain parts of a text, this strips history of its nuances, the undiscussed footnotes and marginalia.

Take, for instance, the “heroes” of WWII, the Allied Forces. Slapping the label “hero” on them masks the fact that Winston Churchill let India starve to support the forces. How different is that, in principle, from the deaths the Nuremberg Trials accounted against the Germans? And speaking of Nuremberg, it is highly compelling to question the justice meted out in that court. Was it true justice or victors’ justice? Did that court evaluate the war or just one side of it? The atrocities the Nazi committed is beyond doubt but, had they evaluated the war itself, isn’t it suspect that the Allies come out more or less completely clean after all those proceedings? (Were they even held under scrutiny?)

How about labeling all Germans as the villains in this war? After all, they, as a nation, decided to put the Nazi party in power. Not to mention the state surveillance that marked the Nazi years, citizen against citizen. But, again, such sweeping labels seem an insult to the memory of brave efforts like The White Rose Movement. Beautiful, if maybe foolish, but futile (or was it?).

Footnotes to the greater narrative. Lights invisible inside the tide that brought us to present times. They are parts of the picture we should never neglect as we judge history.

Which brings us back to the text of Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Our ghost is Werner, a pale German orphan with an aptitude for electronics who finds himself in a time when getting education means assisting, if not outright swearing allegiance to, the Nazi cause. His talents take him to Schulpforta where he develops means to triangulate radio signals—a valuable skill if they are to crush underground resistance movements against the German forces.

It is the cast of Schulpforta which begs readers to challenge any stereotype they may have held regarding Germans in the time of the Third Reich. Sure, the common German portrayal is there: Werner feels stigmatized as most of his fellow students are just so willing to blindly follow the cruelty of their superiors. But during this time Werner encounters two contrasting characters: his friend Frederick and the revered giant Volkheimer.

Where Frederick is described as spindly, much is made of Volkheimer’s physical stature. Where people would not think twice before picking on Frederick, epic tales of superhuman feat are woven around Volkheimer. Where Frederick enthusiastically shares his interest in nature, Volkheimer’s demeanor is a caricature of German soldiers during WWII: aloof, calculating, and efficient.

What Frederick lacks in physicality he more than makes up for in moral courage. He has no remarkable qualities save this moral fiber and despite that I find Frederick the more-admirable individual in his friendship with Werner. Such is his conviction that, in one poignant scene, he proved better than even me, the reader, after I tried putting myself in his shoes. I can only hope that when the time comes that I am offered a cold bucket of water to douse a helpless prisoner with, I can make the right decision and choose what is right over what is easy.

(Werner, on the other hand, for all the stigma he feels, often takes the easy way out when confronted with moral decisions, even if hesitantly.)

As for the giant, there is so much more in him than initially presented. I will not specify instances as that I would consider spoilers but he stays silent for most of the text and yet he is never outright cruel. He defies tropes but manages to somehow remain familiar. Maybe, I find him so because he is me, trying to survive and do what is right, at least most of the time.

There are stretches of the German side of this story that felt particularly difficult for me to read not because of the prose but because the characters are made to face decisions whose horror managed to transcend the printed word and gripped me as I read it. Maybe it is just the zeitgeist I am currently witnessing. Or maybe, Doerr just writes that damn well.

As Werner is no prince I am pleased to inform you that her female counterpart, the blind Marie-Laure, is no princess nor damsel in distress either. In fact, it is actively due to her agency that Werner locates her. Unlike Werner she is seldom hesitant in her decisions, a trait that puts her in harm’s way more than once.

Marie-Laure, an avid reader despite her condition, spends most of the story under the care of her war-traumatized uncle Etienne. His father, a locksmith from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, was taken prisoner during a trip from Saint-Malo back to the capital. Displaced when Paris was taken, her father’s arrest does nothing to help her adjust to the circumstances of a war that is only getting worse.

Marie-Laure’s longing for familiarity and normalcy is understandable but her courage and willingness to fight for that sense of normalcy is astounding and praiseworthy. Instilled with a belief in reason early on by her father, she shows courage like Frederick as well as resourcefulness and resolve in no small amounts.

In the midst of our protagonists’ affinity with rationality, they are bound, if loosely, by a mythical piece of jewelry. And here, again, I praise Doerr for his skill. After everything that is said and done, the reader is left puzzling as to how much did that piece of jewelry really affect the story. Was it a passive object, a McGuffin, whose purpose was only so that the writer can make his characters want something, anything? Or did it play a more active role in the salvation or damnation of the characters who had the (mis)fortune to cross paths with it?

All of which comfortably puts All the Light We Cannot See into the shelf of magical realism. I have not read much from this shelf, I’m afraid, but, so far this is the one I like best. Unlike the superstitious nature of Gabriel García-Marquez’s characters. the rationality professed by our protagonists provides a nice counterpoint to the possibility of supernatural interference. Unlike the zeitgeist of Salman Rushdie’s The Temptress of Florence, these characters find themselves in a war, with no sorcerer nor god to save their skins. Will that stone have saved them? Did losing it made them perish? Go read the book, find out what happens, and decide for yourself.

I can only heap so much praise on Doerr’s work before it becomes redundant can only write so much about the book before I actually tell it word-for-word. This book is many things; it will make you ask questions and ponder on your moral values, all in the guise of a warm tale of an orphan boy and a blind girl.

Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.