In what turned out to be a perfect trifecta, a friend recommended the novel, All the Light We Cannot See, at the same time I was reading a non-fiction book, The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel. I’d been inspired to read that 426 page tome after seeing the movie.
Q. How are these three works connected?
A. They all deal with the terrible havoc created by the Nazis in World War II.
For me the movie was the least compelling of the three. In The Monuments Men, George Clooney presented a jaunty take on a mission, that in the book of the same name is not a romp, but an exhausting task undertaken by middle aged men as an almost sacred duty. Driven to save the great art of Europe which had been looted and hidden by the Nazis, these men left families and promising careers to dodge stray bullets, eat K rations and shiver through Europe’s coldest winter in decades. They did all this in pursuit of irreplaceable treasures like The Astronomer by Vermeer and Rembrandt’s self portrait. One of their most important finds was Michelangelo’s Madonna which, thanks to them, was restored to its home in Bruges cathedral. The story of how this statue got saved is as gripping as an action movie or a detective story. As the Monuments Men are racing to rescue some of the most precious objects on their list, they learn that the salt mine in which these treasures have been stored is packed with bombs and the officer in charge instructed to set them off. To this day nobody is sure exactly who prevented that from happening.
All the Light We Cannot See by Robert Doerr is also about World War II, but in this novel the protagonists are very young—a blind girl in France and a German boy soldier caught in a conflict they barely understand. There is also a hidden treasure, though it is not center stage. We meet Werner and Marie- Laure and follow them from their separate childhoods to their eventual meeting in the French town of St. Malo. Another meshing of these works is their timeline. The Monuments Men arrive in Europe soon after D Day, and much of the final action in All the Light We Cannot See takes place at about the same time. The town of St. Malo is occupied by German troops and under siege by American planes. Except for one obsessed Nazi, the focus during this time is not on treasure, but on survival.
There was terrible hunger and cold and cruelty during that period, but these stories chronicle the capacity of humans to do good, to defy evil and to survive. It’s an inspiring message, and, with our present day situation of terrorists, uprisings and war, we need all the inspiration we can get.