Soldiers of Salamis, the predecessor to Speed of Light, and Cercas' breakthrough novel, is something of a three card trick. It's split into three neat sections, and the whole only really adds up once you reach the reveal of the third part. At this point, Cercas seems to settle into the groove of novel as hyper-realism, (or 'true tale', as his translator calls it), where the telling of the story and the story mesh to such a degree that the line between fact and fiction appears to have been eroded.
As Speed of Light demonstrated, this is a highly effective technique, which perhaps harks back to the dawn of the novel, where stories told to the storyteller as 'true tales' became fiction in the hands of the novelist. To this reader's mind it wasn't as effective as the later book, with Cercas' narrative seemingly over-immersed in the neo-scholarly world of his research into the Spanish Civil War. It's only in the final third, with the intriguing arrival of Roberto Bolano as a character, that the book suddenly moves up a gear, and all of Cercas's preoccupations seem to knit into place.
I had read somewhere that Bolano appeared in the book, so his arrival was not a surprise. All the same, it is intriguing to see the way in which the writer's influence stretched across the Spanish speaking world within his lifetime. Cercas makes it clear that he does not share Bolano's approach to novel writing - Bolano tells him to make up the missing details, Cercas refuses to do so, and from this dichotomy the book emerges, although of course the reader has no way of telling to what extent the author is inventing or not - but all the same the shadow of Bolano's concerns and even his style encroaches. These include, as Cercas acknowledges, the role of the writer as testimonial to that which has passed, the dead soldiers whose part in our history has been forgotten; as well as the writer's neo-Nietzchean obligation to acknowledge his own role within the narrative, thereby demystifying the authorial presence (even if, in practice, this actually has the inverse effect).
Of course, given Bolano's untimely death, the book ends up doing the same for the writer as it does for the soldiers it seeks to immortalise, demonstrating the way in which literature can cheat death, and preserve a trace of that which it would seem death has claimed as its own. The book took me almost a fortnight to read, as I took it to the Highlands of Scotland and back, battling with the opening sections, wondering when the pay-off would come. Then I completed the last section in an afternoon. Reading it after Speed of Light, it's possible to see how the author is honing and developing his technique. His novels lack the scale and extravagance of Bolano's, but they possess all of his subtlety, and all of his love for the potency and playfulness of those things we call stories.