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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Speed of Light

Javier Cercas

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Speed of Light

Title: The Speed of Light
Author: Javier Cercas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 278 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Speed of Light - US
La velocidad de la luz - US
The Speed of Light - UK
The Speed of Light - Canada
The Speed of Light - India
A la vitesse de la lumière - France
La velocità della luce - Italia
La velocidad de la luz - España
  • Spanish title: La velocidad de la luz
  • Translated by Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a lot of story for a book this size -- and yet not enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 9/12/2006 M.John Harrison
The Independent . 24/8/2007 Boyd Tonkin
The Observer . 12/8/2007 James Purdon
The Telegraph . 26/11/2006 Helen Brown
The Telegraph B- 24/12/2006 Anne Chisholm
The Times . 18/8/2007 Christina Koning
TLS A 22/4/2005 Martin Beagles
TLS A- 15/12/2006 Chris Moss

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but generally favourable

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - M.John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "In some ways a re-mix of the civil-war motif of Salamis, the novel once more shows a rare ability to braid past and present into gripping narrative" - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "For all this postmodern tricksiness, The Speed of Light is an affecting and stylish piece of work, lucid as well as ludic. Its earnest discussions of truth and fiction sometimes stumble, but at its heart is a thoughtful exploration of the atrocities of war and of peace." - James Purdon, The Observer

  • "Cercas brilliantly combines the disassociated, philosophical traditions of the Continental novel with the pace, punch and sometime-sentimentality of the American form. And because the bones of the early plot are shot through with the shrapnel of its author's biography (Cercas's own two years at Urbana), the whole thing has the charge of a memoir -- almost that of a confession." - Helen Brown, The Telegraph

  • "For all his undoubted talent -- and this is an intelligent, morally scrupulous book, again a pleasure to read in Anne Mclean's lucid translation -- Cercas's ambitious novel does not quite come off. Falk's character seems contrived, and the linking of national and personal trauma is strained." - Anne Chisholm, The Telegraph

  • "Cercas is a fine writer, and Anne McLean’s translation admirably conveys his lucid style. "A dark, engrossing, satisfying book," The Bookseller said when the work was first published in English last year and other reviewers were no less complimentary." - Christina Koning, The Times

  • "La velocidad de la luz is longer, looser and less humorous than its precursor. (...) But this book is also smoother and more cleverly crafted than Soldier of Salamis or any of Cercas's previous works, and is easily his most accomplished novel so far. Four years of patient work have resulted in an almost extravagant display of artistic control in which an intricate web of verbal and thematic cross-reference spins out across the text. The style is admirably clean and careful, and the characterization superb (...) It is hard to imagine that a better novel will be published in Spain this year." - Martin Beagles, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is full of Falk's cryptic utterances, producing a text that reads like a confession with strings of subclauses, speculations and conjunctions, always anticipating the reader's judgements; Anne McLean's near flawless translation catches Falk's neurotic insistence. Far from annoying us, these prevarications -- which are worthy of Kierkegaard or A. H. Clough -- are very winning. After all, everybody loves a loser, and the narrator, even at the zenith of his literary career, is beset by self-doubt and problems of authenticity that invite sympathy. (...) Nevertheless, The Speed of Light struggles to finish, for Javier Cercas seems bent on closure and on being writerly and clever until the very end. In fact, the narrative keeps arriving at significant finales which justify its haunting intimations of mortality." - Chris Moss, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Javier Cercas covers a lot of ground (and more than sixteen years) in The Speed of Light. The narrator sounds much like Cercas himself: he teaches at the University of Illinois (Urbana) in the 1980s, publishes a novel called The Tenant, has a world-success (the novel is not named, but the success resembles that Cercas had with Soldiers of Salamis), etc.
       The Speed of Light is the story of the narrator's (adult) life -- specifically how he became the man he now is (and more specifically, the one who wrote this confessional novel) -- but another figure casts a strong shadow over all of that, and he makes it clear from the first line what a tremendous shadow that is:

     Now I lead a false life, an apocryphal, clandestine, invisible life, though truer than if it were real, but I was still me when I met Rodney Falk.
       Part of the appeal of the novel is the description of the unlikely course of the narrator's life, from starry-eyed aspiring writer in small Gerona through Urbana and eventually on to world-success (and personal tragedy). Covering such a long period, Cercas skims over much -- but he has a nice feel for what to dwell on, and there's an appealing willingness on the part of the narrator to show what an ass he can be (and frequently is), so that he never sounds too self-important.
       While the narrator is largely self-obsessed, he uses Rodney Falk's life and story as a sort of refracting lens (if not a mirror) on his own life, a necessary counterpart (and balance) -- and a sometimes elusive parallel track to the central, (auto)biographical narrative.
       The narrator and Rodney share an office when he comes to teach at Urbana. Rodney is a true outsider, who barely talks to or acknowledges anyone in the department, and their first exchange doesn't go very well ("as if I'd suddenly disappeared from view, Rodney turned around and left me standing there mid-sentence").
       The narrator is still very green. Back in Spain he'd barely been getting by, an unpublished writer who shared an apartment with a friend who painted:
We were brutally ambitious. We aspired to fail. But not simply to fail any old way: we aspired to total, radical, absolute failure. It was our way of aspiring to success.
       This (self-)destructive pairing of success and failure, of finding one in the other, is a constant in the book; the narrator certainly can't escape it. Rodney's mystique, his apparent refusal to play much of a part in the usual games, be it at the university or elsewhere, stands in some contrast to the narrator's tendency towards posing. Ambition, success, and failure don't seem to figure in any of Rodney's equations. He's passionate about literature (or some authors, at least), but he certainly doesn't seem to care about a career or anything of that sort.
       Surprisingly (indeed, quite unbelievably) Rodney does wind up taking to the narrator. In part, it's presumably the (potential) writer in him that interests him. Rodney even encourages him, to some extent; certainly, the narrator takes encouragement both from Rodney's words as well as from the mystery-man himself.
       There's more to Rodney than meets the eye, of course, and the narrator is curious. It's no surprise that Rodney fought in Viet Nam, and it's clear that that still weighs heavily on him. But the narrator is missing too many pieces to understand what Rodney might have gone through and how it may have affected him. But it's a story, or a mystery, that he can't let go of. Even before he has much of an inkling what it's all about, it's a story he wants to tell.
       Rodney has a tendency to slip away, to simply disappear, but the narrator is willing to chase ghosts. At various stages more information comes to him, first from Rodney's father (and the letters Rodney sent the family from Viet Nam) and then, much later, from the woman Rodney married and settled down with. Even as the narrator establishes himself in Spain (and marries and has a child), Rodney's life and story remain a sort of obsession. And, despite being so distant, Rodney can't seem to let go either, coming to visit in Spain, for example, and having read the narrator's books.
       Not surprisingly, Rodney was involved in something horrific in Viet Nam, something that haunts him and that was never adequately resolved. By the end the narrator is carrying some pretty heavy baggage around as well, with his own share of guilt; Rodney's story remains the refracting lens through which he hopes to achieve some clarity.
       It's a lot to stuff in one book, and the contrast between the narrator's often light and self-deprecating tone (he really does make an ass of himself quite often) stands in stark contrast to some very weighty themes (and quite a few horrific events). It does work, for the most part, but it doesn't feel entirely satisfying. In part that's no doubt due to Cercas' own philosophy. Even before the narrator was really one Rodney had argued that 'the writer' is:
also a guy who considers extremely complicated problems and who, instead of resolving them or trying to resolve them, like any sensible person, makes them even more complicated. That is: he's a nutcase who looks at reality, and sometimes sees it.
       Certainly, the book is about complicated problems, and Cercas' approach -- in a way: circling them, rather than focussing in on them -- offers both insight and rewards. But only up to a point.
       The narrator explained to Rodney why he wanted to write Rodney's story:
     'For the same reason any story gets told. Because I was obsessed with it. Because I didn't understand it. Because I felt responsible for it.'
       This, too, Cercas conveys, but while the sense of obsession and responsibility make for solid foundations, the inability to understand also shimmers through. That doesn't undermine the text, but one is left with the feeling that Cercas has too readily embraced it: he only wants to understand up to a point.
       The Speed of Light is a fairly appealing read. The style is there -- Cercas is an engaging writer, and he spins a good story (or several) here -- but it feels a bit short of substance (in part also because it tackles so very much).

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The Speed of Light: Reviews: Other books by Javier Cercas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Cercas was born in 1962.

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© 2007-2016 the complete review

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