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1stBookReview.com » Blog Archive » "The Speed of Light" by Javier Cercas
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• Saturday, May 31st, 2008

Javier Cercas was born in Ibahemando in Caceras in Spain in 1962. In 1980 he was a teacher for two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the USA. Since 1989 he has been a lecturer in Spanish literature at the University of Gerona in Spain where he lives.

He is a constant contributor to the Catalan edition of El Pais newspaper and the Sunday supplement. Javier Cercas is a novelist and essayist. He received several literary prizes for his book about the Spanish civil war, Soldiers of Salamis, published in 2001. It was translated into fifteen languages, sold about half a million copies and was made into a film. He also wrote:
The Motive in 1987
The Tenant in 1989
The Belly of the Whale in 1997
True Tales in 2000
The Speed of Light in 2006

The Speed of Light (La Velocidad de la Luz) is a short book covering a period of sixteen years, in which the author deals with many themes: Guilt, the impossibility of redemption, the difficulty of forgetting the too painful past, the true significance of success and failure and how success can be a source of corruption, the suppressed evil in human nature, psychological trauma due to the Vietnam war and also the valuable legacy of a writer. “I write novels about the adventure of writing novels” Cercas said.

The novel begins with the quiet and uneventful life of the nameless narrator in Barcelona, then his life in Urbana in the USA where he becomes a teacher of Spanish for two years. The climax is reached towards the middle of the book, with the discovery of Rodney Falk’s involvement in the Vietnam war, which will shed a light on Rodney’s solitude and peculiar behaviour. The story comes full circle at the end of the novel, when the narrator concludes that fame like war, can destroy a person’s life. That is the main strong tie that linked Rodney to the narrator, and what made the narrator obsessed with Rodney’s mysterious past, in particular about what happened in My Khe by the elite fighting unit called Tiger Force, of which Rodney was a part.

The book is not about the Vietnam war only. The Vietnamese war was used to illustrate the author’s message, about how a healthy-minded and ambitious young person (like the character of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness, which takes place in the Belgian Congo and the same Kurtz in the Francis Ford Coppola film about the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now), can turn into a monster due to harsh circumstances. Like success and fame can also be strongly damaging to a man.

It’s “the reality of evil, the impossibility of redemption” and the catastrophe of fame. Cercas suggests in his novel that one can be successful without falling into narcissism. The narrator analyses himself as well as his friend Rodney throughout the novel and enjoys his lengthy literary and witty conversation with him.

Although the novel never reveals the narrator’s name, the narrator in The Speed of Light is none other than the author himself. Like the narrator, Cercas has also taught Spanish in Urbana for two years and while he was living there he met a Vietnam war veteran who was sitting on a bench, watching some children play ball. Cercas then asked himself: “What does that man’s look hide? What is he doing there?” That image, which refers to Rodney Falk’s character, was the starting point of the novel. Cercas, like the narrator, had also a very big success with his book about the Spanish civil war called Soldiers of Salamis. Too many similarities.

Like the French novelist, Marcel Proust, Javier Cercas, in The Speed of Light, has a heavy style of writing long sentences, some of which can extend to almost a page.

Cercas said in one of his interviews: “Most writers, or at least myself, don’t have motivations before writing a book. I decide to write a novel to solve a question that I have asked myself, and as I write the novel, I begin raising moral, political, and other types of issues… Novelists aim at persuading their audience that what they are reading is true… I invite my readers to join me in the process of writing the novel. So on one hand I tell them, “this is a novel”, and on the other, “this is completely true; this has happened to me and it could happen to you”. It’s all about shaking the reader’s conscience”.

Cercas, when asked why he likes to write books about wars, answered: “There is a story my mother has told me hundreds of times that’s always fascinated me. The beginnings of my interest in the war may well stem from this. It’s the story of the family hero, her handsome sixteen-year-old uncle”. He went to war, died as a hero, and was never forgotten by his niece.

The narrator mentioned twice in the book about traveling at the speed of light in order to uncover the future, once towards the middle in page 106, and the second time towards the end in page 253. He said: “I had the impression that everything had accelerated, that everything had started to run faster than usual, faster and faster, faster, faster, and at some moment there had been a blaze, a maelstrom and a loss, I thought I’d unknowingly traveled faster than the speed of light and what I was now seeing was the future”.

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