“What do we call visible light? We call it colour. But the Electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.” With scientific specificity and aesthetic poetry, Doerr carefully weaved together a tale of many things — an individual’s struggle against the crushing current of history, the question on the meaning of fate and the purpose of each and every encounter, and the immense power of hope and kindness.
All The Light We Cannot See (2014) is told through two very distinct narratives that parallel in time — one of a blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc who flee Paris with her father to Saint-Malo, and another about a German boy Werner Pfennig from a humble mining town, who later on become a private in Nazi Germany in World War II. War, in the lives of vivid individual small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, is immediate yet distant and gradual. For Marie-Laure, it is a shapeless spectre translated through his father’s anxiety, neighbourhood’s rumour, the need to constantly stay indoor, tightening ratios. For Werner, it takes the form of exclusion of Jews, fear for his own racial purity, and later, the meal piece instruction and mission handed down from the army, as informative as a piece of puzzle, never fully painting the bigger picture or goal.
Still, the suffocating presence of war that penetrates their everyday life, a silence, obscured, and inevitable constant, and the loss of people whom they hold dear, did not stop them from finding beauty and pleasure in this world. Marie-Laure has her solemn yet imaginative and kind grand uncle with his stories; the courageous Madame Manec with her cooking and resistance club, the grotto of snails and the breaking of tide, her secret entrance to the ocean. Werner has his sister in his remote hometown, rebellious and determine; the seemingly intimidating yet gentle Volkheimer with his love for music, understanding Werner’s misplaced gift and talents; Fredrick with his love for birds, a soul too sensitive for violence. Even when all seems to be lost, Marie-Laure still has her books and the radio transmitter in the attic, and Werner his numbers, formulas, and a radio. It is under these circumstances that the rad of invisible light finally ties their paths together.
It is certainly a fated encounter, albeit one brief and momentary, paved along since their childhood. After Werner saved Marie-Laure from the Sergeant Major Von Rumpel who wanted to obtain the Sea of Flames, a priceless precious stone in her keeping after the disappearance of her father, by force, they sit together, chat, eat, as if they were children all over again, ravishing in the simple and ordinary bliss of living under the bombs littering sky. At the fleeting moment, they are one and the same soul, a light that comes to each other that is all the kindness, all the beauty, all the warmth there is in the world. With two strangers brought together by an unexpected connection, a book, Claude Debussy, and two radio in the time of utter chaos – nothing, not even the brutality of war and the imminence of death, can stop them from laughing, from appreciating, from remembering how to love.
Before they must go their separate way again, Marie-Laure handed Werner the key to the Sea of Flames as a means of repaying him for his kindness. Soon after, the war ends, and life goes on. There was no dramatic farewell, nor miracle reunion, only the void and memories marred by trauma on those that survived. It was not until many years later did she realise that, despite her well-intentions, he returned the stone to the ocean — “That something so small could be so beautiful. Worth so much. Only the strongest people can turn away from feelings like that.”. Their stories, as they touched and diverged forever, may seem anticlimactic, disconcerting, and pointless; but life does not have to be dramatic and happy for it to be meaningful. It is this drop of warmth among the roaring sea of belligerence that makes it as precious as the Sea of Flames itself. However short their encounters, and however cruel time erodes her memories, nothing can negate nor overwritten their connections, a touch light and gentle as feather, pulsing alone like a beacon in the madness of the ocean, attesting to the light of human strength and perseverance that shine the brightest in the dark.
By Ng Nok Ki Cecile