A Sympathetic Nazi: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

Techniques tracked:
-alternating threads of past and present to maximize tension
-making Nazis sympathetic
-plotting with objects


Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and surprise bestseller All The Light We Cannot See (2014) is divided into parts that induce tension similarly to the mode previously observed in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days–alternating threads of past and present so that the reader knows early on about something major that happens later in the linear timeline. In this mode, the tension resides not in what will happen, but in discovering how it happened. The book is divided into Parts that alternate along this timeline, with the Parts composed of Chapters so brief and to the point they might more accurately be described as vignettes. These chapters alternate between Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories, with the occasional plot-important outside player thrown in for good measure. Even if you haven’t read a plot-summarizing book blurb, this structure lets you know implicitly that the narrative is taking us to the moment Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories intersect. It’s our anticipation of this moment that keeps us turning pages.

Now for the summary of these interlocking parts, in which the acute tension is what will happen in the immediate aftermath of the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo, while the chronic tension is what led these particular characters to be in Saint-Malo the moment the bombs hit:

Part Zero opens in 1944, when the coastal French city of Saint-Malo, one of the last German strongholds, is about to be bombed. The fifteen-year old French Marie-Laure, blind and unable to read the leaflets warning townspeople to evacuate, waits in a house in the city. Not far away, the young German soldier Werner retreats into the basement of the Hotel of Bees, which the Germans have taken over as an outpost. After introducing us to our principle characters and setting, Part Zero ends the moment the bombs are dropped.

Part One takes us back ten years to 1934, giving us the childhoods of Marie-Laure, in Paris where her father is the locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and of Werner, who lives in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in the German coal-mining town of Zollverein. Marie-Laure becomes enthralled with Jules Verne, while Werner teaches himself about radios after recovering and repairing a busted one from a trashpile. At the museum one day, Marie-Laure hears the legend of the diamond known as the Sea of Flames, rumored to keep its possessor alive indefinitely–at the price of killing all their loved ones. Werner and Jutta become enthralled with a Frenchman’s science broadcast they pick up on Werner’s radio. Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris as it’s about to be bombed, charged with carrying out what’s either a reproduction of or the real Sea of Flames.

Part Two picks up where Zero left off. After the bombs fall, Marie-Laure’s house is still standing, and she makes her way down to the house’s cellar carrying a model of the house her father built that contains a stone we’ve figured out by now is the Sea of Flames. Werner is trapped in the hotel basement by rubble, with no ostensible way out (in a physical situation symbolic of his larger one as a Nazi, as the following part will elaborate).

Part Three picks up where One left off. Werner’s radio smarts land him at the National Political Institutes of Education, where the atmosphere is intense and violently competitive. We meet Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a German jewel expert dying of cancer who’s determined to find the Sea of Flames to save himself. Marie-Laure and her father move in with relatives in Saint-Malo, where he starts building her a model of the city like the one she had in Paris so she can learn to find her way around, but after the Germans take over, someone misinterprets his taking notations and measurements in the streets, and he’s arrested.

Part Four picks up where Two left off; von Rumpel arrives at Marie-Laure’s house at a moment she’s left the cellar and gone upstairs to pee, and Werner struggles to survive in the hotel basement and fix the radio with the only other survivor, his fellow soldier Volkheimer.

In Part Five, picking up from Three, Frederick, Werner’s only friend at the school and perceived to be the weakest, is beaten by the other boys to the point of brain damage and leaves, while Werner incurs special favor for helping devise a radio-tracking system. Madame Manec, who lives in the Saint-Malo house with Marie-Laure, begins a resistance movement doing whatever she can to undermine the Germans, but then dies of a fever.

In Part Six, picking up from Four, Werner manages to kindle the radio in the hotel basement, while Marie-Laure accesses a secret passage to hide from van Rumpel in the house’s attic, where there’s a radio her great Uncle Etienne never turned over to the Germans.

In Part Seven, picking up from Five, Werner’s sent to war, using the radio-tracking system he helped devise to intercept and kill Russians (the giant Volkheimer does the actual killing, while Werner comes in after to salvage radio equipment). Marie-Laure and her great Uncle Etienne help send subversive radio transmissions for the resistance group. Von Rumpel locates multiple fake Seas of Flames the museum had commissioned, each bringing him closer to the real one.

In Part Eight, picking up from Six, von Rumpel remains in the house, trapping Marie-Laure in the attic with little food and no water. She eventually speaks into the radio, mentioning someone is below her in the house who will kill her and reading from Jules Verne, and Werner hears.

In Part Nine, picking up from Seven, Werner arrives in Saint-Malo, where his group is tasked with locating the culprit of the subversive radio transmissions. Everyone else happens to be asleep when Werner picks up the illegal transmission, whose transmitter so strongly reminds him of the Frenchman on the radio from his childhood that he doesn’t mention to the others what he’s heard, but does, on his own, locate the house it’s coming from. Etienne is arrested performing reconnaissance in the streets to locate German gun positions to transmit over the radio, leaving Marie-Laure alone in the house.   

Part Ten, picking up from Eight, gives us the climax: Marie-Laure finishes the Jules Verne book, and, ready for everything to be over, blasts a record over the radio, knowing the German will hear it and find her. In the hotel basement, Volkheimer hears the music, and, inspired, does what they earlier assumed would be certain suicide–throws a grenade to blast a way out. He and Werner survive the blast and escape, and Werner goes straight to the house to rescue Marie-Laure. He shoots and kills von Rumpel and learns Marie-Laure is the granddaughter of the Frenchman he used to hear on the radio. After she drops the model house containing the Sea of Flames in a sea cave off an alleyway she has the key to (she goes there to to collect snails), Werner helps her escape the city to safety, but doesn’t go any further with her for her sake, since he’s a German. At their parting, she gives him the key to the sea cave. She and the liberated Etienne go to Paris. Werner is taken as a POW by the Americans and, walking outside the bounds of the camp one day, steps on a mine, set by his own army, that kills him.

Since our alternating timelines have now intersected, the pattern must shift. Part Eleven gives us what happens to Jutta after the war, when she’s sent to Berlin to clear rubble and is raped by Russian soldiers. In Paris, Marie-Laure and Etienne try and fail to locate her father and Marie-Laure decides she wants to go to school.

Part Twelve jumps thirty years to 1974. Volkheimer, who works repairing antennae, receives a package from a veterans office with items whose owner they’re trying to find. It’s Werner’s old duffel bag, his notebook full of his questions inspired by the Frenchman’s radio broadcasts, and the model house. Volkheimer takes the items to Jutta, who then goes with her young son to Saint-Malo to try to figure out why her brother had the model house, following a trail that leads her to Marie-Laure, who works as a mollusk expert at the same museum her father did. Jutta gives the model house back to Marie-Laure, who opens it wondering if the Sea of Flames is inside, but instead finds the key to the sea cave, where the Sea of Flames is still moldering in the water. Marie-Laure says she will send the last existing recording of her grandfather the Frenchman’s radio broadcasts to Jutta’s son.

Part Thirteen jumps to 2014 and gives us a single chapter of Marie-Laure with her grandson, thinking about the increase in electromagnetic waves over her lifetime, and that the souls of the dead, including Werner’s and her father’s, invisibly clot the air in a similar way.  

Let’s just be clear what Doerr’s done here: he’s made us wholeheartedly sympathize with a Nazi. Even when Werner is going along with what everyone else is doing, he’s sympathetic precisely because he knows he shouldn’t go along, but isn’t strong enough to resist. His foil is Frederick, who, though deemed the weakest by the group, registers small refusals like dumping out the bucket of ice water they’re supposed to toss on a prisoner. He does what Werner cannot, and pays the price for it, suffering lifelong brain damage; though in the end Werner pays the price of his life, it’s debatable which price is higher, viscerally demonstrating the characters’ rock-in-a-hard place position. Doerr places us in Werner’s shoes with such vivid detail we understand that in his position, we likely would not have been able to act differently, would have acted, as he did, out of fear.

A particularly vivid moment in Werner’s trajectory is when he’s still at the orphanage and a Nazi soldier comes by to seek him out–Werner is immediately terrified the soldier has come because he knows about the radio he and his sister have that they aren’t supposed to, but it turns out he just wants Werner to repair a radio of his. It is, of course, a nicer radio than Werner has ever seen. This is the first hint that going along with and being a part of the Nazi regime will offer certain advantages, but Doerr goes a step further, emphasizing the advantage with the use of another object: after Werner succeeds in fixing the soldier’s radio, he’s rewarded with cake:

Immediately it appears: four wedges on a plain white plate. Each is dusted with confectioners’ sugar and topped by a dollop of whipped cream. Werner gapes. Herr Siedler laughs. “Cream is forbidden. I know. But”—he puts a forefinger to his lips—“there are ways around such things. Go on.”

Werner takes a piece. Powdered sugar cascades down his chin.

Note that Doerr doesn’t actually describe the moment Werner bites into the cake; we know he has bitten into it from the powder on his chin, so that a sentence explicitly describing the bite becomes extraneous. This is a moment where the implied rewards of the regime are made abundantly clear, but Doerr goes another step further by juxtaposing it with the bareness of Werner’s current life. When he gets back to the orphanage, things seem a little different:

In the kitchen, everything looks coal-stained and cramped. Frau Elena brings a plate; on it sits a single boiled potato cut in two.

Here we have an example of a “bloody potato,” the use of symbolism described in a previous post, and we see that the potato doesn’t necessarily have to be bloody to absorb meaning; in this instance, the juxtaposition with the decadent cake lends it its meaning. The boiled potato is everything bland about Werner’s current circumstances, while the cake represents the alluring (if dangerously decadent) opportunities available in the Nazi regime. The reader can feel the conundrum viscerally on this level–until this point, we might not have been able to fathom how someone could choose to enter such a regime, knowing what we do through the clarity of hindsight, but we all know that cream-topped cake is preferable to a boiled potato–the choice between these two things is a no-brainer, just as Werner’s is to take the opportunity to enter the Nazi school. It’s that, or die in the mines like his father.

Of course, Werner redeems himself by betraying his unit and saving Marie-Laure. The climax is satisfying on several levels. When Marie-Laure decides she’s tired of waiting in the attic and finally blasts the music over the radio, it inspires Volkheimer, whose love of music has been a characteristic mentioned a few times–seemingly in passing as a way of showing us there’s another side to this brute giant–to go ahead and throw a grenade to get them out of the basement. The instrument that’s threatened Marie-Laure’s survival turns out to be what ensures it. This is what my teacher Chitra Divakaruni meant when she said every detail a writer includes should be doing at least two things: Volkheimer’s love of music doesn’t just make him human, but becomes integral to the plot. Werner’s listening to the Frenchman on the radio characterizes him as a dreamer, and also becomes equally integral to the plot, the reason he seeks out Marie-Laure’s house and knows exactly where it is when the time comes, the reason he betrays his country for strangers.

Werner’s death following so quickly on the heels of the climax reveals that he’s essentially a prop to enable Marie-Laure’s survival (though he’s also more than that–he’s the sympathetic Nazi). If Hollywood adapts this, there’s a high likelihood they’ll let Werner live and give him and Marie-Laure a happily ever after. The characters have been through so much at this point, even I probably would have forgiven Doerr for letting them have that much. But Werner’s purpose in the narrative is to save Marie-Laure. Everything in his life (and in the novel) is leading to this particular point. Once he’s fulfilled his purpose, narratively speaking, he’s no longer necessary. This may sound harsh, but fortunately it’s got verisimilitude to the whole harsh reality thing: Werner’s sacrifice is symbolic of all that’s sacrificed in war, where there are no happy endings. Though there’s still hope, as on some level Werner’s fulfilling his purpose could be construed as happy:

“You have minds,” Bastian murmurs one evening in the refectory, each boy hunching almost imperceptibly farther over his food as the commandant’s finger grazes the back of his uniform. “But minds are not to be trusted. Minds are always drifting toward ambiguity, toward questions, when what you really need is certainty. Purpose. Clarity. Do not trust your minds.”

Later, Werner recalls this when he first emerges from the Hotel of Bees’ basement after the grenade blast, before he heads for Marie-Laure’s:

They said what he needed was certainty. Purpose. Clarity. That pigeon-chested commandant Bastian with his grandmother’s walk; he said they would strip the hesitation out of him.

And they do. But not in the service of what they had hoped.

The entire plot is sewn together by objects. The most prevalent example is the Sea of Flames uniting the major players in the climax, where Werner saves Marie-Laure not from some random soldier who wants to do her harm for some random reason, but from someone looking for something very specific. (That what he’s looking for will save himself while destroying everyone around him is, as noted, an apt symbol of war itself, and what the Germans were looking for in waging it.) Without the Sea of Flames, this plot doesn’t exist. Many plots are driven into motion by characters wanting something, but in Doerr’s it’s not the main characters who are doing the wanting, but rather navigating the external forces generated by others’ wanting (on the level of both the Sea of Flames and the war itself).

Another critical object is the radio, without which Werner cannot hear Marie-Laure’s help and go to save her. Werner’s own development is marked by his access to increasingly nice radio equipment, until the climax, where he encounters the powerful one that was on the other end of the shabby one in his childhood. Doerr also provides a cathartic resolution via objects when Volkheimer is mailed the model house that he then gives to Jutta that she then returns to Marie-Laure. The reader wonders if the house will contain the Sea of Flames, which would mean Werner had fished it out of the water where Marie-Laure left it. Instead, in the house is the key to the cave where the Sea of Flames still resides (as omniscience conveys). Werner loved her enough to return for a keepsake (the house); that he rejects real value for sentimental conveys the depth of his love, further heightening the tragedy.  


2 thoughts on “A Sympathetic Nazi: Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See

  1. Pingback: The Novel-In-Stories Echo Chamber of The Madonnas of Echo Park – the pva creative writing review

  2. Pingback: the pva creative writing review

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