Monday, December 11, 2006

The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas

Success as a writer arrives at last - with a novel which resembles exactly Cercas's own acclaimed Soldiers of Salamis - but because it seems so arbitrary, it brings with it no self-confidence. Instead it turns him into a narcissistic womaniser who alienates then loses his wife and child. By the end of his war with himself, his life is as ruined as Rodney's: all he can do now is tell the story he couldn't tell before, and in doing so tell his own. An event becomes story only when someone has a use for it. The writer hopes to validate himself by becoming his friend's voice; he hopes to save himself - from being a lifetime wannabe, a ghost, a moral and emotional failure in his own eyes - by identifying and strengthening the parallels between their experience.

His tone throughout is calm and busily discursive. In his attempts to understand his relationship with Rodney (not to say his relationship with himself) he draws in everything from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song to a poem by Malcolm Lowry. To begin with, this seems emotionally uninformative. He describes people very clearly - "a Cuban American, well-built, enthusiastic, with a gleaming smile and slicked-back hair"; "a very well read, ironic, slightly haughty guy, who dressed with a meticulousness not entirely free of affectation" - but we don't see anyone or feel anything. And though we know that this is a novel about writing novels, its discussions of fiction soon become as boring as the intellectual landscape of Urbana. For nearly a hundred pages, it's an academic discourse, a book written with intelligence and humour but without sensation. Then Cercas takes us with Rodney to Vietnam, and everything explodes. Ironically enough, though we are now at the heart of the lie of narration, the point where things are at their most written, their most constructed, we begin to travel at the speed of light. As Rodney says, echoing all those grunts so ably ventriloquised by Michael Herr in Dispatches, "war lets you go very far and very fast".

The Speed of Light will vie with Daniel Pennac's The Dictator and the Hammock for the title of tricksiest Euronovel of 2006. But while Cercas has credible enough reasons for encouraging the content to sleep with the presentation, he understands that it's possible to be bored by this romance; and while he's as interested in the fictional hall of mirrors as any postmodern, unlike Pennac he is careful not to be blinded by his own conceits. Forget the biographical conundrum, because that's just a way of teasing us with what we already know about narrators and narration; what saves The Speed of Light from being the template writing-class novel is its humanity. Like Soldiers of Salamis, it's an intricate, male exploration of guilt, monsterhood and authenticity, the impossibility of redemption and the plausibility of self-forgiveness.
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