Javier Cercas first achieved international recognition with his novel set around a minor episode in the Spanish Civil War, The Soldiers of Salamis. The Speed of Light is about many things – friendship, art, war and memory, certainly. But this short novel (well, 278 pages) is also about writing and being a writer. The novel is set between Barcelona and Urbana, Illinois and concerns a young, aspiring Spanish writer who befriends a Vietnam veteran when he takes up a temporary post as a teaching assistant at the university in Urbana. It is an extraordinary friendship that spans continents and decades, but it is also a friendship that is never fully realised or resolved.
The book also concerns itself with the thwarted attempts of the young Spaniard to write the story of his American friend. In fact, the book is about the struggle to write this very book itself (for the book is both the story and the story of the story) and the book also stands for the friendship between the two men.It is only when the book we are reading finally ends that the writer’s struggle to write the story ends and the friendship is complete.
It is one of those books that teases the reader with its assumed autobiographical content. The writer in the book writes an early novel called The Tenant (Cercas wrote an early novel called The Tenant and the Motive); the writer (and we never get to know his name, by the way) makes his name with a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Cercas also spent two years working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But, of course, at the same time this is a fictitious author in the book – it isn’t Cercas, or at least we can’t assume it is.
One of the testimonials on the back cover likens Cercas’s writing to that of Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald. I can see that (although it is Hemingway who is most explicitly referenced in the book), but it is also worth remembering that the stylishness of the prose also owes much to the excellent, fluent translation by Anne McLean.