Tuesday, January 5, 2016

All the Light We Cannot See- by Anthony Doerr

In the summer of 1984 I spent a month studying Spanish in Salamanca, Spain. My cousin Lori came at the end of the month to travel with me for a few weeks. She suggested that we take the train to Saint-Malo, France and spend some time on the beach. I was enchanted with the old buildings, and the extreme tides which could strand a person in one of the old ruins for an entire day if you weren't paying attention. I don't think I learned anything of the history of the place at the time though. Reading Doerr's book I felt like I was walking through a dreamscape-something familiar but that didn't seem quite right. It was strange trying to justify my fun vacation 32 years ago with learning about the Nazi occupation. I dreamt about Saint-Malo twice while I was reading this book. I don't remember ever having dreamt about it before.

The story is of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who loves mollusks; and Werner, an orphaned German boy who is a whiz at learning how things work. Werner is curious and clever to the point that the Nazis recognize his abilities in technology. He is recruited for training with the regime - his supremely Aryan looks an additional asset. Marie-Laure is likewise clever and her father does not allow her to let her blindness handicap her. He insists that she learn to read Braille, teaches her how to solve puzzles and builds scale models of their neighborhood in Paris, and another one when they flee to Saint-Malo (to live with Marie-Laure's great uncle) so that she will be able to navigate the streets on her own. The chapters alternate between Werner's and Marie-Laure's two stories until near the end when Werner and his crew arrive in Saint Malo looking for illegal radio transmitters and the two lives converge.

This book was recommended by a friend, not because it was an especially library-centric book, but rather because it is just such a good book. However, it wouldn't be included here if it didn't have at least some library references. There were, in fact, about a dozen or so.

Marie-Laure's father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris where he distributes keys to other employees "zookeepers...office staff...technicians and librarians and scientific assistants..."

Of course, the library is included in the scale model of Saint-Malo he builds as well. The library in Saint-Malo is a place where Marie-Laure also has a few meetings with others. And ultimately, we learn of the the burning of Saint-Malo (and its library) on August 8, 1944
Flames scamper up walls. Parked automobiles catch fire, as do curtains and lampshades and sofas and mattresses and most of the twenty thousand volumes in the public library. The fires pool and strut; they flow up the sides of the ramparts likes tides; the splash into alleys, over rooftops, through a carpark. Smoke chases dusk; ash chases smoke. A newsstand floats, burning.
One Nazi uses the geological library in Vienna to do some research on precious stones. He is assisted by a "mousy librarian" and "an underweight secretary wearing brown shoes, brown stockings, a brown skirt, and a brown blouse." The Nazi soldier is researching precious objects for the "führer" who, rumor has it, "intends to remake the Austrian town of Linz into an empyrean city, the cultural capital of the world. A vast promenade, mausoleum, acropolis, planetarium, library, opera house..."

The library as metaphor is used twice in this work. As the city of Saint-Malo empties of its inhabitants it is described, rather desolately, as a "library of books in an unknown language, the houses great shelves of illegible volumes, the lamps all extinguished."

And finally Marie-Laure, many years later, images that the air itself is a library, not only with "images of electromagnetic waves...torrents  of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail...commercials for Carrefour and Evian prebaked toaster pastries..." but also "that souls might also travel those paths...might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings...a record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it."

One final note:
This story reminded me of listening to Michel Chikwanine. His story of being a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo was tragically reminiscent of Werner's story. Child soldiers are still being recruited today. Human Rights Watch has more information.

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