"The fear and darkness of the regime slowly grows on you, but empathy and tenderness are never far behind," writes Vidya Bhandarkar.
Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See begins in the years leading up to the Second World War and follows through into the grim years of the war. It tells the story of Marie-Laure, six years old, who is relearning her home, her neighbourhood in Paris and her love for her father in the light of her newfound blindness. She repeatedly traces her fingers through the model of her locality carved by her father; counting every drain, every tree. She walks those very same streets every day holding her father’s hand, to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where he works as a locksmith. She reads Jules Verne in braille, lying on her stomach, under her father’s desk. She learns to identify snails by feeling her way around their uniquely patterned shells in Dr. Geffard’s lab in the museum. She is trying to establish a footing in an otherwise unfamiliar and indifferent world.
It also tells the story of Werner, eight years old, growing up with his sister in an orphanage for miners’ children in Zollverein, Germany. He tows his sister in a makeshift cart through the colony, watching the drab life of the miners as they drag themselves into and out of the mines, shoulders hunched, and dead faces painted black with soot. He listens to science lessons broadcast from France on an old radio he retrieved from a dump yard and managed to repair. He builds circuits to peel potatoes and rock cradles to help the motherly matron Frau Elena, who runs the orphanage. He writes down questions he intends to find answers for, in a battered notebook – Why do boats float? Can magnets affect liquids? However, reality is stark; soon he has to go to work in the mines.
First, the fear of it and later war itself slowly descend on them, altering the courses of their lives like an unanchored boat in the ruffled seas. They are now teenagers. Marie-Laure is forced to flee Paris with her father, to the coastal town of Saint-Malo. Werner is enlisted to serve the cause of the German war.
“What are we doing now, Papa?”
“Hoping for a train.”
“What is everybody else doing?”
“They’re hoping too.”
The book probes the lives of people whose dreams, fears, survival are immaterial to the larger forces of war at play. What do you do in the face of such unrelenting circumstances? You wait and you hope. You wait for the curfew to be lifted, and then get out to soak your feet in the warm waters of the sea. You wait for your conscience to egg you into action. You spend the last of your money to visit an ailing friend. You read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and pretend you are captain Nemo steering the Nautilus out of difficult waters. You ferry a coded message baked in a bun and hope that it helps the resistance.
However, waiting is often the most arduous task. The waiting game saps your spirits and wears you out. It leads to decay and eventually death. It takes great strength of character to wait for the pall of fear and gloom to disperse. It takes great courage to keep your hopes up.
The entropy of a closed system never decreases. Every process must by law decay.
The book also intimately follows the role played by the radio in the resistance movement of the people against fascist forces. The German forces recognized this and were prompt in confiscating radio transmitters and receivers in all occupied territories and in setting up squads to ferret out unauthorized transmissions. But with sundry items – battery, coil – and some tinkering, a transceiver could be assembled, and it was used widely to run an underground rebellion from cubbyhole hideouts.
The radio waves do not recognise borders and hence played a role in dissolving boundaries; bringing people together. It carried not just coded messages but also music, science, languages to any listening ear. The radio offered consolation; and kept countless hearts beating and many a dream alive during those dark times.
The omelette tasted like clouds. The peaches were wedges of wet sunlight in her mouth.
The winner is Anthony Doerr’s fluid and constantly engaging writing. The fear and darkness of the regime slowly grows on you, but empathy and tenderness are never far behind. The world outside is big and bad, but beauty is to be found in smaller things – the flow of electrons in the radio circuitry on splicing together the broken wire and then, the static; the thousands of snails studded on the walls of a grotto beside the sea; the purling of the sea waters beneath your feet at the beach. You are led on by the cane in Marie-Laure’s hand, the soft yet determined clasp of her fingers, the crackling curiosity of Werner’s countenance assured that all darkness will eventually be conquered.
Vidya Bhandarkar is a resident of Bengaluru, and an avid reader.