Friday, April 20, 2007

Richard Wallace reviews Javier Cercas' "The Speed of Light".
Javier Cercas is a Spanish writer, author of the award-winning novel "Soldiers of Salamis" (2001), which was also made into a film. That novel, set in the final months and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, explored questions of loyalty and the nature of truth.

"The Speed of Light," published in Spain in 2005 and a huge best-seller there, is also about the legacies of war. Only this time the war is Vietnam.

In an August 2005 interview with the literary publication Criticas, Cercas said his novels begin with a single image, and the image for this one came while he was teaching at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. He saw a Vietnam vet sitting on a bench watching some children play ball, and Cercas wondered, "What was he doing there?"

In Cercas' novel, that real person becomes Rodney Falk, a middle-age war vet who has been forever damaged by his horrific experiences in the Vietnam War.

Cercas' narrator and Falk meet as instructors at the University of Illinois in the Spanish department. Rodney is a big, lumbering man who rarely talks to the other teachers. The two men become friends, talking literature and drinking beer on their off-hours. After winter break Rodney disappears, quitting his job and leaving the university in the lurch.

Visiting Rodney's father, the narrator learns how a bright, talented, young Midwestern kid became a haunted, lost adult.

Years later, back in Spain, the narrator, now a successful writer, meets Rodney again. Finally, he hears Rodney's version of a village massacre in Vietnam called "My Khe." Soon after, the narrator suffers a personal tragedy that links his fate to Rodney's life in ways he could not have foreseen.

Part detective story, partly a rumination on the writing process, Cercas' novel is about the pitfalls of fame and the nature of evil. What he does best is answer, with deep empathy and candor, how the nightmares of the past persist in the living.

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