I don’t even know where to begin in describing and reviewing All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. It is a sweeping and gorgeous novel about Germany and France during World War II. In some ways, it is “just” another one of those novels capitalizing on the horror and tragedy of our shared history. In other ways, it is new and needed and full of original characters and observations of that time.
What stood out to me most was the way in which the novel demonstrated the danger of the efficiency that ruled the Nazi ideal. Any and all systems engage in this, in wanting order, not chaos, uniformity, not messiness. However, I learned from thinking about efficiency throughout the novel that I should be embracing more chaos and messiness in my life, and that order isn’t necessarily always good nor praiseworthy.
This idea struck me most during the German boy Werner’s time at school. He is a poor boy from an orphanage, destined to work in the mines, that ends up being recruited for an elite training school (meant to funnel the brightest minds into the Nazi system of hierarchy and military). He is rescued from his “dead-end” life, in which he’s been told he has no future. And he’s bright. He has figured out how to fix and build radios on his own, and he listens to a science broadcast for children in French that teaches him more about what he is interested in.
However, while at school, he discovers what he must sacrifice in order to get the education he desires. He must give up his morality, while his friend Frederick does not. Frederick refuses to participate in the torture of Jewish and Russian prisoners as part of their training, and he pays dearly for it. He is beaten so badly by his fellow students that he ends up brain damaged. Werner loves his friend, but Werner realizes that he is a coward compared to Frederick. He is unable to stand up the way Frederick does, and he is unwilling to take the heat for staying true to one’s values.
Such resolve is difficult under the circumstances. At school, Werner learns to define “entropy.” His teacher explains, “Disorder. You hear the commandant say it. You hear your bunk masters say it. There must be order. Life is chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon” (p. 240). Yet those of us who know this project as history know that this isn’t true. We know that you cannot control others, order the species, or make neat our chaotic world. We know that the world is messy and disordered, and that life is often better that way. We know that agency is more important than efficiency, and we know that it is okay for people to be different. The control of the Nazis led to the horror of the Holocaust. Order is not inherently moral or good.
Werner’s story is connected to Marie-Laure’s, a young French girl who is blind and lives with her father. They must flee Paris during its occupation by Germany, and do so with a valuable gem from the museum where her father works. They live with her uncle, Etienne, and his housekeeper in Saint-Malo for a time, until that seaside city is completely destroyed in August of 1944, when the Germans are beginning to be defeated. Marie-Laure’s uncle, Etienne, and his brother, her grandfather (now dead), are the men responsible for broadcasting the French science program for children that Werner grew up hearing. Marie-Laure herself is intelligent and inquisitive. She learns to read in Braille and loves the works of Jules Verne.
She learns of truth and order from her books: “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth” (p. 328). I love this idea, because it combines with chaos and messiness to mean that our lives, full of mistakes and problems, are ways of getting closer to truth and enlightenment. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from disorder. We do not learn by being controlled or having our freedoms taken from us. We do not learn by getting rid of those who are different and rejecting everybody who does not look, act, think, or feel like we do. We do not learn by being perfect or by having all of the answers.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I plan to be a little more carefree. I plan to embrace the messiness of my life. I will continue to learn from my mistakes and to let failure drive me on. I will not insist that others be like me. I will allow others the freedom to learn from their own chaos and messes. I will keep reading great literature that makes me think.