In Javier Cercas' previous novel, the affecting and widely honored "Soldiers of Salamis," a narrator named Javier Cercas chronicles his attempt to write a true story about a small episode in the Spanish Civil War. Through the recollections of an ensemble of Spaniards, Cercas returns to this episode often, wondering why a soldier of the Republic didn't report a Nationalist prisoner who had escaped from a mass execution. At the same time, a series of motifs recur, over and over, as if trying to attach themselves to some meaning about heroism or war or history, eventually finding it in Miralles, a veteran of many wars who transmutes what precedes him with an unexpected and heartbreaking coda.
Cercas' new novel, "The Speed of Light," follows a similar method of inquiry. An unnamed narrator chronicles his attempt to write a true story about Rodney Falk, a Vietnam War veteran he befriended as a young man at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The young narrator, an aspiring novelist, has left Barcelona with a scholarship to teach Spanish in the Midwest. His new American peers lampoon Rodney, the department's loner and a potential loony. "[O]ne of these days," one of them says, "he's going to show up here with a Kalashnikov and blow us all away." But Rodney, an "anachronistic hippie" with the "the swaying instability of a pachyderm on the point of collapse," is also the most literary person he meets. The narrator and Rodney start to spend time together. They never talk about Vietnam, but about books, and, years later, the narrator will interpret Rodney's lectures on literature as pointers on how to tell his Vietnam story. Rodney declares: "[A]ll narrative art consists on knowing when to shut up: that's why the best way to tell a story is not to tell it." Read More
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