The best moments in All the Light We Cannot See are times when he says things he does not have to say. They are like gifts.
“The last technician,” says Neumann one, “didn’t find anything.”
“It’s good equipment,” says Werner. “I should have them both functioning in an hour.”
A gentleness flows into Volkheimer’s eyes and hangs there a moment. “Pfennig,” he says, looking at Werner, “is nothing like our last technician.”
That moment was completely unnecessary. That little bit of description. It’s just a gift. Before this line of work, I for years studied memorials to the dead, built by those who should have stopped them from becoming dead, and didn’t. I kept wondering when a book like this would come along, and how it would be received. There was All Quiet on the Western Front, of course, but that’s the wrong war (though it’s always what people pointed to when I asked about this). And though it starts young, it doesn’t start young enough: it doesn’t humanize children who were taught to dehumanize others from, almost, the cradle. Children who grew up killing, and whose own chlidren, in the 70s and 80s, demanded answers they couldn’t or wouldn’t give for what they did.
We don’t need to know, verbatim, that Volkheimer is still capable of tenderness. We could have guessed it from actions he takes elsewhere. We don’t need to have it spelled out for us like this. But it’s a gift that he does it. It tangles things for us. Werner, we have already been brought to believe, doubts the morality of what he is doing, and the majority of those for whom he does it (though he, like the vast majority of his countrymen, lack the courage to turn that discomfort into subversive action). We are being asked, throughout the pass, to give him a moral pass, for his doubt. But Volkheimer? All the others? What right to our forgiveness have they? Werner is a liability for them at this point: if he can question why they do these things, wage this war, why aren’t they? Would it not be easier to paint them with a red brush of condemnation and dismiss them all as morally bankrupt?
It would be easier. And we still might. But it is going to be messy for us, with moments like this with Volkheimer carved into our brains. That’s why I love these tiny little descriptive gifts. Things should be messy. Moments like this ensure they are.
His footfalls across the landing. One-pause-two one-pause-two. Wheezing. Climbing again.
If he touches me, she thinks, I will tear out his eyes.
This is coming from a blind girl. Think on that. I missed it at first, riveted and riotously sororal in the face of a sentiment I’d felt myself more than once. But she’s blind. She has not seen since she was six. She can move in the world and has learned to live in it fully, but this is her threat. This, as she is torn asunder, is what she will do to him. If he ends her, he will be forced to live as her. Let him learn how it is. Let him live it.
That is way more powerful than I caught, the first read through.