The Speed of Light uses the same author-in-search-of-a-story device as Javier Cercas’s previous superb novel of the Spanish Civil War, 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.