Writing Beautifully About Nazis: The Strange Failures of All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr’s body of work is filled with characters who have extraordinary gifts. In his earlier novel About Grace, a man could dream the future. In his short story collection The Shell Collector, people were gifted with everything from metal-eating to speaking with the dead. In his most recent work, the Pulitzer-prize-winning World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, a young German boy has a preternatural ability to work with radios. And if Doerr himself has a near-magical gift, it is that of spinning sentences that each have the lush beauty and soft sheen of a perfect pearl—a gift on full display in All the Light We Cannot See.

The novel’s two young protagonists grow up on opposite sides of the brewing world war. Marie-Laure is a blind Parisian girl whose locksmith father builds her intricate models of their neighborhood to enable her to learn how to navigate independently. He escapes with her to a seaside French town in advance of the war, and then disappears with a jewel that may be cursed, leaving her alone with an uncle who is losing his mind—but holds a delicious secret in his attic. Werner, her counterpart, is a German orphan whose talent for electronics earns him a spot in an elite academy for young Nazis. In one tense day, Werner and Marie-Laure each come under siege—Werner from enemy bombings, Marie-Laure from a German scientist determined to find the precious treasure her father may or may not have left with her. Their stories, of necessity, converge at the climactic moment.

Weaving all these threads together is Doerr’s musical, arresting voice. The opening chapters are brief set pieces that combine suspense with almost unbelievable beauty: a French seaside town is warned of incipient bombing under a moon that “hangs small and yellow and gibbous”; bombers dip towards their target, a walled city that “looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.” Images are drawn with sharp clarity in the space of a few words, and given plenty of white space so that they linger in the mind.

The Pulitzer, to my eye, tends to signal a well-researched novel, and this one doesn’t disappoint. From the little details of mid-century European upper-class culture, to the ins and outs of the Nazi usage of radios, to small European towns rendered in minute detail by an authorial eye as attentive as the hand of the model-making locksmith, the book manages to use sparely chosen sensory details to create a world that is absolutely lush, almost touchable. A known danger of writing a well-researched novel is to become overly enamored with said research, and veer into sounding like a report. Doerr does not fall victim to this fate; he is too skilled with his prose, and with the intricate plotting of his two intertwined stories, each running in two parallel timelines. But I was left with the sense that the beauty of the prose itself had gotten in the way of the ugliness of the history the novel should have explored.

Radios, after all, are not merely intricate, marvelous instruments created by human ingenuity. Not in Nazi Germany: they’re also lifelines for victims, and tools for perpetrators, of one of the worst sins in human history. This contrast is not lost on Doerr, for while Werner uses his technological skills for the Nazis’ purposes, little Marie-Laure discovers a radio that serves quite a different, life-affirming purpose. The book illuminated this surprising parallel, heretofore rarely explored in literature, in a way that made me eager to read more. What could we learn about fascism from the fact that it made such intelligent use of magnificent scientific inventions? What could we learn about technology from the fact that it is so easily used as a tool to control, to kill, indeed to commit genocide?

But though the contrast between what, because of the magnitude of Nazism’s crimes, I can non-ironically call good and evil uses of technology is inherent to the novel, there seems to be little to say beyond noting that contrast. It strikes me while reading that much could be said, explored, about the catastrophe of Nazism by looking at why radio was so important. That this was the first truly totalitarian regime; that Nazi fascism was an innovation just as radio was; that it relied on machinery to destroy the world—from the trains that brought victims to camps, to the gas chambers that destroyed them with such terrible efficiency, to the radios that Werner so loves—all of this is interesting territory. By the time the book ends, the reader has barely been able to dip her toe into these waters. Instead, she has learned a lot about how cool radios are.

I would argue that this is a symptom of a larger failure on the part of the novel to push, to take risks. In fact, “resistance”—not in the political, historical sense associated with World War II, but emotional resistance against difficult truths—seems to characterize much of the novel. Having a Nazi protagonist is a daring choice, but the novel allows him to get away with very little bloodshed. The greatest brutality he witnesses is in the training camp, where his power is negligible; and the months he spends after his training, actively participating in hunting down resisters, are mostly elided. He doesn’t even seem to know about the camps, and he certainly does not seem to come to grips with the real extent of the evil he has participated in. He has a sterile, vaguely unwilling, role: but it’s a role, after all, in a genocide.

At some point, this approach may not only to be a failure in courage but almost an act of apologetics. Many people who participated in Nazism were certainly like Werner in that they were not quite willing participants, not quite brave enough to see what they were doing, and not quite strong enough to resist: average people, in other words, who were used by others for a purpose that was far from average. But the novel seems almost to suggest that being weak and well-meaning is something to be celebrated in the human spirit.

I, on some level, rooted for Werner—and it’s easy to do so, as his twinges of conscience are frequent, and his illusions that he has no choice are close to convincing. In that I was justified rather than questioned by the end of the novel: Marie-Laure asserts that Werner’s soul “glowed with some fundamental kindness” and his sister Jutta, allows that “It was not… very easy to be good then.” In fact, Werner gets away without many voluntary acts of unkindness, so this is not a surprising epiphany but a surface-level observation. His kindness, in other words, is a secondary question. What he does is both beyond redemption (in the sense that he participates in the worst thing humans may have ever done) and too easy to redeem (in the sense that so little of his participation really reflects what was truly happening).

It seems narrow, even un-literary, to judge an entire book based on its perceived moral adequacy. For example, Gone with the Wind has some measure of greatness despite the fact that it is both about the great evil of slavery and also absolutely fails to see that evil. [Janes: I would actually make an argument against that example, but I think the point stands.] So Doerr’s beautiful, suspenseful, intricate novel did not manage to put enough teeth, enough ugliness, into its portrayal of Nazism? So what? Shouldn’t we judge its merit as literature separately from that?

But in a work of great literature, some hard question, or some hard truth, must be wrestled with, or faced. And in a novel that truly wanted to ask us whether people swept up in Nazism could still have had fundamental goodness, the utter horror and brutality of that movement would not be so sterilized, so elided. The protagonist would face more fully the absolute horror that he had contributed to. And the reader would find it more difficult to recognize his fundamental goodness, if it, in fact, exists. Kindness is a mere aesthetic distinction, between likeable and unlikeable Nazis.

And perhaps that’s the entire problem—that the novel loses its way, and begins to focus on aesthetic questions of form and parallel structures, of radio usage and confluences of bad luck surrounding a jewel, instead of examining the question it purports to, which is, I think, the question of how goodness, in the midst of evil, survives. As Hannah Arendt wrote about comprehending totalitarianism:

It means, rather, examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us—neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality—whatever it may be.

The challenge posed by Arendt is a daunting one, but necessary: World War II cannot be adequately comprehended in a novel unless the author is prepared to “bear consciously” a very great burden.

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