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Reposting my comment to a Facebook post of Fully Booked:
When I bought my copy of To Kill A Mockingbird earlier this afternoon, I did not know that today was the 55th anniversary of its publication! What a beautiful timing!
On my graduation day, my sister and her husband were kind enough to give me a book that I have wanted to add to my collection: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
I first got to know about a book while going over a list of must-reads several weeks ago. While going over the book’s overview, I knew I would want to read it. I would have wanted to get the book myself as a graduation gift for myself but my sister was gracious enough to get it for me (thanks to a Facebook post I put up).
Doerr’s novel (ten years in the writing!) is set in the Second World War (1939-1945). It is the story of a blind of French girl and a German boy who earned himself a place in the Hitler Youth. Their stories run parallel to each other to offer two major perspectives on the war.
The Eyes of the Conquered
The first perspective is that of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the daughter of a locksmith in the Museum of Natural History in Paris where she learned about rocks and snails. Every year, during her birthday, her father gives her a book in Braille. The books would serve as fuel to the fire of her imagination. Early in the novel, her life becomes tied to a legendary diamond called the Sea of Flames. The diamond is said to protect the life of its holder at the cost of other lives, the lives of the holders’ loved ones.
The Museum of Natural History entrusts Marie-Laure’s father with the protection of the Sea of Flames, a mission which leads them to Saint Malo in Britanny. They were welcomed by Etienne LeBlanc, Marie-Laure’s great-uncle, and Madame Manec, who has been helping in Etienne’s household for many years.
Marie-Laure’s story would explore the Resistance as the Nazis occupied Saint-Malo. Despite being a novel set in World War II, All the Light We Cannot See does not offer vivid descriptions of battles. It tells the story of those who are affected, how it tears and destroys families, how it leaves scars that would not heal in years, and how men, women and children must learn to fight in every single possible way.
Such was the war for Marie-Laure who had to experience everything without her vision. She grew up too soon as she faced the daily struggles of the war, during which, she becomes a participant in efforts to overthrow the Occupation officials. Would she be caught? Would her great-uncle and Madame Manec be taken from her? Such were the questions that would haunt her every day as the future becomes more and more uncertain.
The Eyes of the Conqueror
The second major perspective in the story comes from white-haired Werner Pfennig, a boy who grew up in the mining town of Zollverein in Essen, Germany. If Marie-Laure’s fortunes have been determined by a legendary diamond no larger than a pigeon’s egg, it was his fascination for the radio that would bring Werner Pfennig to a place at a Hitler Youth school.
Werner grew up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta and with the orphanage’s mistress, Frau Elena. As a boy, he fixes a broken radio he picks up from the roadside. The broadcasts he hear on the radio fascinates him and his sister. Just as rocks and snails enchanted Marie-Laure, the science discussed in the radio broadcasts fascinated Werner.
Later in the novel, Werner passed the admission exams of the Schulpforta. During his time in the school, he further proves his skills on fixing radios and making them work. In doing these, he was made to believe that he is honoring his fatherland and the Führer. Werner tracks the participants in the resistance using radios and when he sees death in the hands of his comrades, Werner begins to have his doubts.
At the core of his doubts is the question: Can the bright future promised by the Reich be only more of killing? His tasks would lead him to Saint-Malo where he is confronted by choice and by his conscience one last time.
Despite being a part of the forces which conquered Marie-Laure’s people, Werner humanizes the conquerors in such a way as to personify their consciences and dillemas. His character further showed that in war, there are no winning sides. Werner could have been in the ranks of inevitable victors but at what price? He is far from his family and somewhere along the way, he has lost a friend. Did his dreams lead him to the right place? Is he a hero that honors his country’s ambitions or is he a hero who would save the innocent? And even as the Reich falls in France, there will be a heavy price to pay, one with devastating repercussions.
A War Fought on Radio Waves
Doerr’s novel portayed how the radio played a significant role during the War.
For the people surrounding Marie-Laure, the radio is a medium where separated loved ones can get in touch. It is also a medium for the participants of the Resistance to exchange information. For Werner, the radio becomes a tool for hunting down the enemies of the Reich.
It is because of the radio that the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner converge, and the result of their paths’ convergence will be the greatest puzzle for the reader as he deeply absorbs himself in the pages of Doerr’s novel.
The significance of the radio in the novel would lead to points of reflection on technology. The book closes in 2014 as 84-year old Marie-Laure spends time with her grandson in the park. While her grandson plays his games on his device, Marie-Laure ponders on how technology affects her grandson’s generation.
While the people of her grandson’s time is dependent on technology for work, entertainment and communication, her very life, and those of the people around her depended on the airwaves being transmitted by the radio. In this way, All the Light We Cannot See becomes a reminder of how technology can help, change and even break the lives of its users.
Though the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner do not converge until much later in the story, the parallels and the contrasting images in their stories are beautifully woven. The result is a poignant tapestry of a story that shows us the wonders of science, the horrors of war and the complexities of the human condition.
The power in most of the scenes is conveyed by how the surroundings of the characters present seemingly mirror the thoughts and emotions of the characters. The snowflakes, the waves, the rays of light, the music, the dust, the explosions, etc. do not only give powerful background scenes or imagery. They connect very deeply with the characters and the larger pictures of the novel’s circumstances.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the writer of this novel was to describe the surroundings through the perspective of blind Marie-Laure. In conveying Marie Laure’s experiences, the reader finds himself in the darkness surrounding Marie-Laure. The reader becomes part of Marie Laure’s effort to walk around in a crowded city with only a cane to help her. The reader becomes absorbed in what could be feasts for Marie Laure’s senses such as the ocean waves.
Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is not meant for a quick, smooth and easy read. Every page is meant to be absorbed and to inspire a reader in search of a heartwarming experience.
Before I was an Iskolar ng Bayan, I was a student in another university (I failed the only entrance exam I took from one of the big four universities in this country) who later dreamt to be in the country’s premier institution of higher learning.
My first efforts to go to UP included attending novenas honoring Saint Jude, the patron saint of wishes and impossible situations. Devotees believe that when they ask for the Saint Jude’s intercession, Jesus would listen to him. After all, they are cousins and reputedly very close.
On a particular novena I attended, I wrote down my wish in a small piece of paper: that I succeed in my efforts as a transfer applicant to UP. At that time, I already passed my interview and I am scheduled to take my final written exam the following day. After writing down my wish, I dropped the paper in the petition box, heard the Mass and attended the novena.
I took the exam the following day and learned results in the week that followed: I passed the written exam and I will be an Iskolar ng Bayan. I attended the week’s novena honoring Saint Jude, this time to say thank you and to light candles as a sign of gratitude.
During the novena, the priest asked that the petition box be opened so that he can read the petitions aloud. In a beautiful twist of fate, it was my wish that he first read aloud. If only he knew that while he was praying for the fulfillment of my wishes, Saint Jude has already ‘asked’ Jesus to grant me my wish.
While he was reading my prayer, I cannot help but have a very big smile. My heart felt like bursting with a thousand expressions of gratitude. It could not contain my joy that moment, and thus began my first few days as an Isko, or at least someone who is officially going to be an Isko at the beginning of the school year.
If I have a few regrets on the four precious years I spent in UP, perhaps among them are the many times I could have gone back to attend Saint Jude’s novenas. After all, the four years in UP are full of one impossible situation after another, challenges that could have used a ‘little help’ from Saint Jude’s intercessions. Now looking back at my beginnings as UP student, I cannot help but fondly recall Saint Jude and how he helped me fulfill my wish.
I am a very big admirer of Pope Francis. I remember staying up late on the night of his election (I was late in my morning class the next day as a result) and when I got to know him in the reports, I knew that this he is a man I definitely admire. My admiration got even bigger when he made stunning acts and pronouncements in the first months of his papacy.
During the months when Filipinos were anticipating the Pope’s visit to the Philippines, I was also struggling to finalize my thesis topic. My Eureka moment came while scrolling my Facebook newsfeed where I came upon a news item about the Pope’s upcoming visit. So I decided that his speeches will be excellent materials for analysis.
I also did not skip the chance to see the Pope during his visit. My sister and I waited for almost thirteen hours at the University of Santo Tomas before we got to see him and then finally hear his moving speech.
There was a time while writing my thesis when I tweeted the Pope’s account to thank him for the inspiration he gave. There were also instances when I asked my friends in difficult situations to tweet the Pope and ask him to pray for them.
One such friend was having a hard time finishing the last draft of her thesis. When I saw her, I did my best to comfort her and jokingly advised her to tweet the Pope and ask him to pray for her. A few hours later, she posted a screencap of her tweet to Pope Francis asking him to pray for her. On the same day, she posted the screencap of her adviser’s email telling her to have her thesis bound. It was the end of a long, tiring journey for her, one that included a little involvement of the Pope.
I also gave the same advice albeit jokingly to another friend who was applying as an instructor at UP. This friend heeded my advice a day before his teaching demo. Now, he is officially accepted as an instructor in the department where we both came from.
I doubt it if the Pope even read the tweets of my friends, but I believe that the little gesture gave them comfort, that it sustained them in their times of need until they finally triumphed over the challenges they were facing.
During the university graduation (one which I attended most happily), UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan recalled in his opening speech the challenges that his fellow officials faced to make sure that the university graduation will push through.
This year’s university graduation was the first June graduation since the academic calendar shift last year. Thus the fear of an imminent downpour during the program and the absence of the iconic sunflowers blooming in time for UP’s graduation.
Because an indoor graduation lacks the spirit of an outdoor graduation (which is how it has always been), Chancellor Tan recalled how the UPD admin decided to move program in the morning where the chances of raining are less. He also mentioned that another breed of sunflowers was planted, a breed which can withstand the rain when it falls.
During the past few days, the university’s weather watchers have been at a close watch. Chancellor Tan also mentioned during his speech how he kept a vigil on the weather to make sure that our degrees will not be conferred through text.
But my favorite anecdote from the Chancellor is about the eggs they offered to Saint Claire for good weather. Chancellor Tan even joked that we can take comfort from the fact that they did not use taxpayers’ money to purchase the offerings.
Some may find it ironic that an academe as scientifically-oriented and advanced as UP resorted to performing such a step in the hopes of having a good weather on graduation day. But believers have no doubt, and there are many who agree, that on that day, Saint Claire has heard their prayers.
While others may dismiss that prayers, offerings and wishes are superstitious, even academics agree that such steps are necessary for community survival. While skeptics doubt or even dismiss what believers regard as the power of saints, they cannot dismiss that during life’s darkest hours, people also found comfort and strength in small measures like rituals and prayers which sustained them in their big battles.
Now that we Iskos and Iskas have triumphed over our challenges in the university, our eyes are now on the challenges outside the university. The challenges now lie in helping others find the answers to their prayers and the fulfillment of their wishes, especially if their prayers and wishes are the achievement of justice in a society where inequality still reigns supreme.
What is it like to fall in love with you?
It’s like being caught in the rain at a time when I forgot to bring my umbrella.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,000 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 33 trips to carry that many people.