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Javier Cercas: La velocidad de la luz (The Speed of Light)

The unnamed protagonist is a would-be novelist living in Barcelona. He is close friends with a would-be artist. Both predict that, one day, they will be famous, but, right now, they are struggling to earn a living and have little time for artistic creation. Then, one day, our hero meets a former professor of his, who proposes that he go to the University of Illinois at Urbana, where they are looking for young Spanish assistant professors. He gets the job and goes off to the University. He makes a couple of faux pas, accusing the much-loved Pedro Almodóvar of being gay (he is punished by being taken, unknown to him, to a gay bar) and then damning Hemingway to Rodney Falk, the man with whom he shares an office. Falk is a very shy man, a former Vietnam veteran, who reads voraciously and who adores Hemingway. As a result of his remarks on Hemingway (a shit), Falk barely speaks to him till our hero is called on to assist at a Catalan class, given by an Italian, who speaks Catalan, Italian and Spanish but not English, and at which Falk is a student.

When Falk asks our hero about Rodoreda, our hero is careful to keep his opinions to himself and praise her, as Falk has read her in Spanish and adores her writing. Following this, they become closer, as our hero helps Falk with his Catalan and they both discuss literature. During the Christmas break, our hero goes off on a journey round the US with some friends. When he returns, he learns that Falk is no longer there and no-one seems to know what has happened to him. He tracks him down to his father’s house but his father either doesn’t know or won’t tell where his son has gone and whether he will return. But, sometime later, the father phones our hero and ask to meet him. At this time, he shows him a series of letters sent by Rodney and his brother Bob.

We learn that, when young, the father had favoured the more outgoing Rodney and Bob very much resented this. One day, Bob goes off and signs up for military service in Vietnam. Rodney has mixed with a more liberal group and is very much anti-war. One day, he has a row with his father about this and disappear for three days. When he returns, he too has signed up. His letters show some of his concerns. He recounts some brutal horrors, both vicious behaviour by US soldiers and attacks by Viet Cong (he is almost blown up in the streets of Saigon). But it is clear that he changes and become more remote, especially when his brother is killed. Betrayal by a South Vietnamese officer who is part of their troop and Rodney’s own stay in hospital all make him even more remote, so it is something of a surprise when he re-enlists after his tour of duty.

But Rodney seems to have disappeared and it is time for our hero to return to Spain. There his life changes. He marries and has a son. They move out of Barcelona and back to his home town of Girona. His wife had a good job so he is able to focus on his writing. He is published but he does not have much success but he is very happy. However, one of his books, inevitably one set in the Spanish Civil War, gets some good reviews and then, suddenly, takes off. It sells well, is well reviewed and he is feted, appearing on TV and at conferences. But the fame goes to his head. He cheats on his wife, drinks and smokes marijuana and gives up writing to live the life of a celebrity. He is aware that he is going downhill but enjoys it One day, while he is away at a conference, he returns home to learn that his wife and son have had a visit from Rodney. Unfortunately, he had to leave so our hero does not get to see him. Initially, he is reluctant to contact him but then has difficulty finding him, eventually tracking him down to a hotel in Madrid, where they meet and have a night-long discussion. Rodney then returns home. But it all goes very wrong for our hero and, as a result, he loses touch with Rodney. Eventually when he has the opportunity to go to the United States again, he makes an effort to visit Rodney. Again, things do not work out. All the while, however, he has been planning to write a book about Rodney and his life but has been unable to do so, partially because he does not have all the facts. The book that we are reading is that book, with the missing facts included.

Cercas tells a good story, covering such issues as personal guilt, the effects of war on the perpetrators, the problems of fame and issues relating to artistic creation, particularly whether, for the artist, it is something that can be properly managed and related to a normal life. While the story of Rodney Falk, his service in Vietnam and the after-effects of that service not just on him but on his loved ones, is the key to the book, our hero also has his own problems and issues which he struggles to resolve and Cercas cleverly intertwines them. Fortunately this book is readily available in English (and other languages) and is certainly worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in 2005 by Tusquets
First English translation in 2006 by Bloomsbury