Add to Your Book List All the Light We Cannot See

In just the first few weeks of January I’ve come across several 2017 “reading challenges”. They’re lists that go from “light” (13 books per year) to “obsessed” (one per week). Some of these lists suggest that the reader try a variety of types, e.g. a book about a hobby, a book about science, Christian living reader, one written in the twentieth century, one about writing, and so on.

I stay away from lists like these as I consider myself definitely on the “light” side of the spectrum. But that’s partly because I have generally discounted in the count anything I don’t read slowly for leisure. By leisure I mean book club reads, favourite genres, the ones you spend hours with at night time, while in bed eating chocolate. But when I counted up everything I’d read (or at least was part-way through) in the first three weeks of this new year, to my surprise, my tally was seven.

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeOne of those was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a book-club-leisure-in-bed-with-chocolate read. And I loved it. It’ll be a book I remember, not one I simply needed to tick off on an “obsessed” reader list. It was published a couple of years ago and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story is set during WWII and revolves around two young people from enemy sides linked through war and the radio. The radio, of course, was an important medium of both propaganda and rebellion at that time. Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, falls on the side of “rebellion”, while Werner, a German orphan, falls on the side of “propaganda”. Thrown into the mix is a valuable diamond that is secreted out of the Paris museum at which Marie-Laure’s father works. The stone brings into the story themes of desire, and blessing or curse, depending on how the diamond is treasured or viewed. The characters are well-drawn and complex and I came to care deeply about them.

The chapters are very short and alternate between Marie-Laure’s story and Werner’s, until right near the end when the two merge. This makes for easy reading, adds to the building tension and draws the reader in with a growing sense of foreboding. The sentences, too, are short and the vocabulary economical (I disagree with one reviewer’s viewpoint that the book was verbose and too full of adjectives). I’ve made a mental note to emulate this writer if I get the chance to write fiction.

So, if you’re a book list person, or want a meaningful story to immerse yourself in, I highly recommend All the Light We Cannot See.

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a story of history

A few years ago I visited Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. My husband and I travelled just 32-odd kilometres to get there from Munich. I remember walking back into the small town after the English tour. Only a few hundred metres down the road we turned a corner and bright, summery shrubbery obscured the site of many deaths from view. I think this is what it was like for many Germans during WWII. An extermination camp operated, mere kilometres from where ordinary Germans lived. And residents either chose to ignore its existence or were unaware of it.

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Alexander Fehling in the subtly and brilliantly acted Labyrinth of Lies. Image source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marshall-fine/the-week-in-movies-labyri_b_8182496.html

Decades later of course the world has enough information about what went on in these camps to be appalled. Perpetrators have been prosecuted. Camps like Dachau have been made into museums so that we can’t escape history. But it wasn’t always like this. The film Labyrinth of Lies makes that clear. Set in Frankfurt less than two decades after the war viewers of this movie are confronted with a Germany of silence. Victims hesitant to speak up. Nazis living and working as bakers, mechanics, teachers in towns alongside their victims, not revealing what they did. Officials unwilling to share what they knew. Finding the criminals was a mission, exacerbated by laws for their prosecution that didn’t yet exist, and reams and reams of paperwork and red tape.

One young prosecutor, instilled with a sense of justice, “stumbles” across a victim, and a journalist passionate to tell the truth. And so together they begin what would lead to the first large trial in Germany of SS officers who were responsible for the deaths of thousands in Auschwitz. Alexander Fehling as the prosecutor Johann Radmann is outstanding in his role. Subtleties of facial expression and body language reveal more than words as the actor moves his character from ignorance, through duty then horror, to passion, despair and determination.

Labyrinth of Lies is more than a film about history. It reveals the human heart and poses the question that, had we been in the position of those Nazi officers, would we have behaved any differently?

Labyrinth of Lies is in German with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor Cinema Nouveau in South Africa on Friday 30 September 2016.