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The Speed of Light: A Novel (La Velocidad de la luz) Paperback – April 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An unnamed narrator's life comes full circle as he confronts buried secrets and tragedy in this powerful novel by Spanish author Cercas (Soldiers of Salamis). The unnamed narrator, a young writer whose hustle to survive in Barcelona doesn't leave him time to write, takes a scholarship as an assistant Spanish professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, in the late 1980s. Once there he makes an unlikely friend in office mate Rodney Falk, a Vietnam vet who everyone else in the department thinks is insane. After Rodney disappears during winter break, the narrator visits Rodney's father, who fills him in on Rodney's troubled past. Back in Spain a year later, the narrator becomes a successful novelist, but remains haunted by Rodney (and his skeletons) which the narrator wants to write into a novel. From the electric passages chronicling the narrator's descent into writerly paralysis to his discovery of Rodney's miserable end and then his own creative resurrection, Cercas writes with verve and brings the novel to a close in a mad sardonic swoop. Cercas has delivered a wry and touching examination of the ruinous effects of war and fame. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

A novelist strongly resembling Cercas (they've written the same books and lived in the same places) recounts this cautionary tale of mishandled success foretold by Rodney Falk, a fellow teaching assistant at the University of Illinois. When the young writer achieves literary acclaim back in his native Spain, his monstrous ego soon destroys everything of importance to him. Grasping for purchase in the world, he attempts to track down his old classroom comrade and perhaps tell his story. He even tries the Vietnam vet's life on for size but finds it doesn't fit the way he imagined it might. They've both committed unspeakable atrocities, and Cercas explores what it is to rebuild amid the psychic rubble. He playfully suggests writing may hold the seeds of salvation as well as destruction. As Rodney puts it, "If you don't yet know what you want to say but you're crazy enough or desperate enough or brave enough to keep writing, you might end up saying something that only you can come to know, and that might be of interest." Indeed. Frank Sennett
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 278 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596912146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596912144
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,746,933 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Youkali on October 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
I can't think of a better novel about Viet Nam, or, for that matter, about all the wars since Korea. And it's set in Urbana and Barcelona. I'd say go figure, but then GUARD OF HONOR, perhaps the best novel about WWII, was set in Florida. Maybe it's because Moltke the Elder was right when he said "Everything in war is very simple." Life is different.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Aidan J. McQuade on January 1, 2012
Format: Paperback
The Speed of Light uses the same author-in-search-of-a-story device as Javier Cercas's previous novel Soldiers of Salamis. At its core the book is a meditation on how war breeds atrocity and the consequences of atrocity on the perpetrators - the murdered are barely mentioned and only fleetingly considered.

However while a gripping read it ultimately is significantly less satisfying a book than the author's earlier one about the Spanish Civil War. As one of the characters says to the narrator in The Speed of Light - "you can't understand because you haven't killed". And because the author - presumably not a killer either - does not understand he cannot explain. Instead he describes, recounts and tries to empathise. This is an honourable exercise, but it provides little insight to this subject. Furthermore the author's blurring of the distinction between himself and his protagonist leads, I found, to great difficulty in trusting the account itself and hence the insight the author offers.

Nevertheless the book is elegantly written and translated, and it is thought-provoking. Perhaps it will lead some to revisit actual histories of the Vietnam war, particularly "Four Hours at My Lai", which deals much more directly and insightfully with the realities of war-crimes.
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Having now made five or six attempts at beginning this review, I am coming to the conclusion that THE SPEED OF LIGHT is a particularly difficult book to review. So I will try a somewhat pointillistic approach and hope that some sort of picture emerges.

There are two protagonists. First, the anonymous narrator, who is a writer from Barcelona. At the time of his tale (2005?), he is in his forties. The second is Rodney Falk, a Vietnam war veteran who spent the 35 years after the war trying to put his war experiences behind him and somehow carve out a stable life for himself. The two of them meet in the late '80s when they share an office as teaching assistants in the Spanish Department at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Against all odds, they end up forging a friendship, albeit a strange and sometimes strained one.

There are two main settings: Barcelona and its environs, and Urbana, Illinois and a town not far away, Rantoul. The first half of the story takes place in the late '80s, with much of that consisting of the narrator learning some (but not all) of Rodney Falk's harrowing and traumatic experiences in Vietnam. The second half of the novel takes place around 2002 to 2004, when Rodney Falk reappears in the narrator's life after 14 years and the narrator learns even more about his time in Vietnam.

The novel is elaborately plotted. It also is ornately told. It is marked (some might say "marred") by long, baroque sentences, many lengthened by numerous conjunctions, others by a thicket of subordinate clauses. In my opinion, it is over-written.

The theme that almost all readers will note and remember has to do with the American experience in Vietnam and how it scarred so many of the American soldiers who survived the fighting.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By John P. Jones III TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 3, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Conceptually, this book had much appeal. A view of the American War in Vietnam, from a Spanish perspective. Less emotional baggage, so perhaps it would ring truer, was the hope. Then there was the matter of his most famous work, Soldiers of Salamis, highly touted by a fellow Amazon reviewer, and with a strong cord that appealed. The book is concerned with events in the Spanish Civil War, but the title reflected the author's theme that in contemporary Spain, those who fought in the Civil War were as remote and irrelevant to the present as the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BC. The same theme seems to apply to American society, and those who had fought in the Vietnam War. Finally, there was the matter of Urbana, Illinois, where much of the novel is set, and where I spent a couple wonderful days when the dogwood were abloom in 2008, wandering the streets, as a "bennie" for giving a few talks at the University.

The narrator is an aspiring and struggling writer in Barcelona, who manages to obtain a teaching position in the Spanish department at the University of Illinois. His office-partner is Rodney Falk, the proverbial, and VERY stereotypical "troubled Vietnam War veteran." The novel's narrative thread involves the protagonist developing a friendship with Rodney, and his attempts to unravel his "troubled" past, with scenes in America, Vietnam and Spain.

Regrettably, what the author dishes out is the wildest Hollywood phantasmagoria of the American war in Vietnam, and its participants. He gets it wrong at virtually EVERY level...from the small details, to the chronology, and most importantly, to the motivation and actions of Rodney.
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