Many years ago as a student in Strasbourg, France, I had many great conversations with Mme. Farès, the middle-aged cleaning lady who worked in the building where I lived. It was she who told me that at family meals, after half an hour the conversation still turned to the war. I didn’t have to ask which one – I was, after all, in the Alsace, where ambiguity was in the earth. More than thirty years after armistice, the events were fresh. I was American, young, and had the good fortune not to know that those scars actually never fade.
My generation, born post-war, actually had no idea. Our understanding of the Second World War was not understanding, but an insulated and distorted set of platitudes, images and stories manufactured by Hollywood and poorly written high school textbooks. I knew about Iwo Jima because of a photo and John Wayne. I knew about the Holocaust because of The Diary of Ann Frank. I knew about the bridge on the river Kwai because of a tune. I heard about bobby sox and stars hanging in windows from my mother’s stories about her high school friends in uniform, lively and fun-loving, about dances and Glenn Miller. But I only knew about the London blitz, bombs and shelters, from the movies. Later on, there was Hogan’s Heroes on TV, so stupid that the whole thing seemed somehow overblown. To live in safety a continent away from the conflict is to watch flickering images in the dark.
I have read more in depth since those days, and am grateful to Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel for bearing witness. I have visited an acreage of cemetery in the Philippines and a Jewish burial ground in Prague. I’ve had relevatory conversations with German friends and French relatives, Jews and Gentiles. I’ve seen the bunkers, still there, in the woods along the Rhine and pockmarks on cathedral walls. But these places are tidy and quiet. There is clean water. There is food. People are kind. There are no corpses.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr has written a brilliant evocation of the war, told through the eyes of two young people, from opposite sides of the conflict, and the same side, the human one. There is not a character who does not ring true and about whom you do not care. There are images and details that delight and those that horrify, and the use of language is so sumptuous and clear and breathtaking that pause is necessary, from time to time, just to savor it. There is wonderment and fear, so visceral as to prickle the skin, and hope amidst cultural and human ruin that you can almost smell. There is the power of the sea and infinite geology, the beauty of nature, books, human invention, music. Above all there is light, in the title and in the intention; it is more than metaphorical, because you cannot finish this book and not understand in a profound way how the experience of war heightens, diminishes and forever changes those it touches. No one is exempt.
Has there ever been a human civilization wise enough to avoid war? Gloria Steinhem recently said, I paraphrase, perhaps the greatest generation will be the ones who do not go to war. Will we ever, in astonishment, through sorrow or love or regret, see the light?
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.