24 July 2014

Anthony Doerr

I remember the first time I read a story by Anthony Doerr, in the wonderful collection "The Shell Collector." I was immediately taken with his prose, a unique combination of lyricism, prose-poetry, and clarity. He is known best for his stories and now, in a sweeping 500+ page novel, he weaves together multiple stories of French, German and Russian perpetrators, all in some way victims of World War II.

Although Amazon selected the novel as best book of the month when published in May, their review also begged the question: do we need another novel about WWII? Apparently, all the stories have yet to be told, and, more importantly, few told as beautifully as "All the Light we Cannot See."

The tales unfold in chapters alternating between key characters: Werner, an orphan with a penchant for gadgets, and a prodigious ability with electrical circuits and radio technology, which the Nazi's discover most useful to their land war; and Marie-Laure, a blind adolescent whose father, locksmith for the Paris natural history museum, has taken her to the walled coastal city Saint-Malo, only to face the French occupation, and a town that will become the last German stronghold as the war nears end.

In truth, as fascinating as Werner's character and prowess, and his thoughtful attachment to his sister, I sped through his chapters to Marie-Laure's because she was such a fascinating persona, and this was easy to do because all the chapters are brief, further accelerating the narrative.

"To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away."

The story revolves in large part on a gem stolen by Marie-Laure's father from the museum for protection, a stone rumored to ruin the lives of those in its possession, which he buries in a model of the city he builds for Marie-Laure so that she might learn her way around. Marie's lifelong independence stems from her father's determination to teach his daughter to survive her blindness, and these skills ultimately allow her to survive far more.

From 1940 to 2014, we follow Marie-Laure, her father, her traumatized uncle, another fascinating characters, and eclectic French and German friends, and Werner, his sister, Jutta, as well as Werner's assorted friends and mentors. The chapters dealing with Nazi schools meant to train their youth are especially chilling, and psychologically enlightening.

In the end, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure find each other through the wireless, and through the books and music lovingly handed down to Marie-Laure, and they bring these connections to all their friends and loved ones many years after the devastation of the war.

This is the sort of book you bury yourself into at the beach or in the yard, or by the fire in fall.

05 July 2014

Discover Juan Gabriel Vasquez

"The Sound of Things Falling"

"I was surprised by how little effort it took me to summon up the words I had spoken or heard, things I'd seen, pain I'd suffered and now overcome; I was also surprised by the alacrity and dedication we devote to the damaging exercise of remembering, which, after all, brings nothing good and serves only to hinder our normal functioning, like those bags of sand athletes tie around their calves for training."
So the narrator of this fascinating novel tells us early on, even as he spends much of the story searching for meaning through memory, through the memory of others.
            Vasquez who recently won the Impac Dublin award for international fiction, seems to wish to sever the connection between Colombian literature, cemented by the great Garcia Marquez, and magical realism, replacing it with more literal realism, which he paints with brunt force and thick brushstrokes. “I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics."
            A young law professor in Bogota plays billiards after class with a man named Laverde, who is rumored to have recently returned from a long prison sentence, but soon after, Laverde is fatally shot at a bar, with Antonio, the victim of collateral damage. Antonio has only recently settled into married life because of an unexpected pregnancy, another of the surprises he contends with as he tries to make sense of his city's history and future.
            We witness Antonio's desperate determination to discover who Laverde was and why he was shot, which will take the reader to flashbacks of Laverde's young life and his love affair and subsequent marriage to an American Peace Corps worker, who was killed the very same day as the shooting when her flight goes down en route to Colombia after an eighteen year absence, having returned to the US when Colombia in the eighties was unsafe for their daughter, Maya. It is Maya who ultimately holds the key, making it possible for Antonio to deconstruct his country's violent history and the nature of the drug culture, which, suggested in this novel, may have been precipitated by Americans from the Peace Corps as well as CIA.
            Vasquez also deftly weaves historical facts of interest, including a striking depiction of a zoo established in the 1970's by the dictator Pablo Escobar, which went to ruin when he passed in the early nineties, and may represent for Vasquez the trap of the Columbian people.
            The novel is riveting. Elegiac, heart wrenching, but not sentimental, severe without a heavy hand. These younger Latin American writers are bringing a new literary sensibility to their canon, and while they honor the legacy of masters like Garcia Marquez, Cervantes, Bolano and Saramago, they offer a fresh perspective and fresh voices. "A life unlived, a life that runs through one's fingers, a life one suffers through while knowing it belongs to someone else: to those who don't have to suffer." 
Read this fabulous novel and be among the first to discover a spectacular writer.