Saturday, 20 March 2010

the speed of light [javier cercas]

Having spent the past couple of weeks commuting to Enfield Lock, I've had plenty of city-bound reading time. Which is just about the only good thing to be said about commuting. However, I also feel somewhat guilty that I found myself finishing Cercas' novel on the Victoria Line, at 8.30 in the morning, somewhere between Kings Cross and Tottenham Hale.

Guilty, because The Speed of Light feels like too fine a book to be consumed in bite size morsels. It's a simple book, consisting of four distinct sections, featuring a narrator who also claims to be the writer, and for whom the act of writing is the only thing that would appear to be keeping him sane. The book shifts from Catalonia to the North American Midwest, to Vietnam. The subject matter includes war, ambition, death, being haunted, and, always, writing itself.

I came across the book via a recommendation on what should henceforth be known as Pelevin's Guardian Unlimited. Purchased and read it cold, so as yet I know nothing about its writer. Whether the Bolano/Amis-esque hints that the narrator offers (one of the books he is said to have written has the same title as one of Cercas' novellas), are anything more than playfulness, I don't know, and in the end, will never matter. What matters is that the book succeeds in convincing that the writer and narrator are one, and the narrator's struggle to write the book you're reading, a book which it takes him at least a decade and several tragedies to create, convinces. The play on authenticity which the use of the narrator engages in is one of the book's many charms. Much time is dedicated to the notion that we should care about the characters within a fictional world, and Cercas' clinical dissection of his narrator's failings, failings which lead to both tragedy and learning, with the unpredictable always around the corner, is surprisingly moving. So much so that the throwaway ending caught me out like a sucker punch, on the tube, made me want to hold the book close to me for a moment, as though it really were a person.

Reading is a complex habit. The Speed of Light itself refers to this, the way in which some authors somehow manage to reach out and grab you or kiss you or hold your hand. Creating books which stand as sentinels on the long journey we've all found ourselves embarked upon. So much of our reading is habitual, matter-of-fact, a way of filling time on trains, a diversionary tactic. It's only when you come across a book that really seduces you that you remember why you read. Not so that you can forget about who you are and what you're doing with your journey time. The book that will really blow your mind is the one that will coax you into remembering who you really are, and what you're choosing to do with the time allotted on your journey. Cercas achieves this, with the deft touch of a magician.

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