Our friend Nick DiMartino sent us this report from...his easy chair!
Finding the Good Ones
24 March 07
What am I doing in this armchair?
I should be at the bowling benefit for gay marriage equality, and instead I’m caught up in Javier Cercas’ exciting new novel, The Speed of Light (paperback original, $13.95), unable to put down this unexpected, unsettling and perceptive Spanish take on the Vietnam war.
The book is due out next month. It’s about a Spanish grad student who gets an assistant professor post at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he shares an office with a complex and embittered Vietnam vet. When his office mate disappears—and Rodney Falk is a fascinating guy—the unnamed narrator goes to the little town where Rodney lives with his Dad.
Well, now Part Two involves the Dad summoning the narrator back out to his house to tell him some dreadful tale of Vietnam—I’m expecting the worst. It’s really tense going. We’re about to find out why Rodney Falk is the way he is, and what we’ve already learned has been pretty heartbreaking. But fascinating! Narrated in this cool non-fiction style, utterly believable, blurring ever more the line between memoir and novel.
The only other book by Cercas in English translation is Soldiers of Salamis ($14.95), a similarly hyper-realistic recreation of a moment in wartime. In this case, it’s this classic unforgettable moment that the reader comes back to in the novel again and again: a fascist bad guy manages to escape from a mass execution at the end of the Spanish Civil War. A pursuing soldier finds him, locks eyes with him, holds him at gunpoint, and lets him live.
Out of this incident Cercas creates a fascinating fictional research project to make history surrender its secrets. Part One shows the author’s discovery of the incident and his research, with a little help from his girlfriend. Part Two is the biography of the fascist who walked away from the firing squad alive. Part Three is the author’s attempt to find the soldier who spared his life, in a search through all the nursing homes of France. It all turns into a subtle, smart meditation on war, memory, and fiction writing.
I haven’t finished Speed of Light, but I will never forget the ending of Soldiers of Salamis. Cercas is tough and unsentimental and a pleasure to read. It’s like no novel you’ve ever read before, and boy, does it have a cumulative effect at the end.
So it’s a hard act to follow, and this second book is every bit as good. And even more disturbing, because we’re not talking about the Spanish Civil War here, we’re talking about us, the American debacle seen by a non-American, a war in which almost sixty thousand soldiers died, most of them boys of twenty, and ten times more bombs were dropped than on all of Europe during the Second World War.
Enough blogging for one night—I want to get back to my book. Even though I'm nervous. I’m about to read about Rodney Falk’s encounter with Captain Vinh...