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The Acceleration of Light

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by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean

278pp, Bloomsbury, £14.99

To address is to attempt to accomplish yourself authentic. The narrator of Javier Cercas’s fifth book, a Spanish Euronovelist who ability be Cercas himself but apparently isn’t, is too guilty, too defective in self-confidence, too acquainted of his own failures, to name himself. Ghosts don’t abide and the asleep do, he tells us, that’s the aberration amid them: but he’s lying after alive it – or that’s what he’d like us to think. His unreliability, and our own, not to say the blunder of history, accomplish The Acceleration of Ablaze a cunning book of ghosts and zombies – those who are too achromatic to accept any absorption on the world, and those so apprenticed by the contest that destroyed them that they can’t lie down.

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In 1967, accumulated affectionate apprehension and cultural burden accelerate Rodney Falk, a quiet, accomplished adolescent American, to accompany his adolescent brother in Vietnam. It’s a country that bears no affinity to the one he expected, and the war is unwinnable as able-bodied as unconscionable. His belletrist home become so abashed that his parents sometimes feel addition man has usurped his name and handwriting. After the afterlife of his brother, Rodney joins an aristocratic unit. He commits a war crime. He is bedfast out with a Silver Star and a hip injury, accursed to the “stumbling, unsteady, defeated gait” of addition who has done article so amiss it enables him to address “No amusement can analyze with the amusement of killing.”

Thereafter he lives in, or creates, his own space: bodies affected to collaborate with Rodney feel as if they’re in some Dadaist play. By the backward 80s the atypical finds him alive in the Spanish administration at the University of Illinois in Urbana, “an bound boiler absent in the average of nowhere”.

All this is a account alert told. Zombies like Rodney axis the movies, banana strips and Tom Waits songs of the backward 70s and aboriginal 80s, with their old Zippo lighters inscribed, “Fuck it. I got my orders.” They’re shamanic. They apperceive article about bodies that bodies shouldn’t know. We admire and abjure this ability at the aforementioned time, and by accepting the allegory defuse the fact: while no one is a monster, none of us is far abroad from accomplishing a aberrant thing. The attributes of angry is that it has no appropriate nature. What can Javier Cercas add to this observation? What abroad can he appearance us? He can appearance us that assuming is the point: captivated annular Rodney’s adventure is the adventure of why it comes to be told.

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In the backward 80s, the narrator arrives, aloof as Cercas did, at the University of Illinois, Urbana. He’s a naive, audacious Spaniard who doesn’t alike apperceive the films of Almodóvar, a ambitious biographer with no abstraction how to begin. Rodney Falk, the crank of the Spanish department, anon becomes his affecting and bookish anchor. They allocution all night in bars, about writing, about Hemingway, about war and what war means: again Rodney vanishes, forth with whatever “truth” he has to tell. Fourteen years later, we acquisition the narrator aback in Spain. He has fabricated abounding bootless attempts to address Rodney’s story.

Success as a biographer arrives at aftermost – with a atypical which resembles absolutely Cercas’s own acclaimed Soldiers of Salamis – but because it seems so arbitrary, it brings with it no self-confidence. Instead it turns him into a egotistic womaniser who alienates again loses his wife and child. By the end of his war with himself, his activity is as broke as Rodney’s: all he can do now is acquaint the adventure he couldn’t acquaint before, and in accomplishing so acquaint his own. An accident becomes adventure alone back addition has a use for it. The biographer hopes to validate himself by acceptable his friend’s voice; he hopes to save himself – from actuality a lifetime wannabe, a ghost, a moral and affecting abortion in his own eyes – by anecdotic and deepening the parallels amid their experience.

His accent throughout is calm and busily discursive. In his attempts to accept his accord with Rodney (not to say his accord with himself) he draws in aggregate from the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song to a composition by Malcolm Lowry. To activate with, this seems emotionally uninformative. He describes bodies actual acutely – “a Cuban American, well-built, enthusiastic, with a aflame smile and slicked-back hair”; “a actual able-bodied read, ironic, hardly assuming guy, who dressed with a accurateness not absolutely chargeless of affectation” – but we don’t see anyone or feel anything. And admitting we apperceive that this is a atypical about autograph novels, its discussions of fiction anon become as arid as the bookish mural of Urbana. For about a hundred pages, it’s an bookish discourse, a book accounting with intelligence and humour but after sensation. Again Cercas takes us with Rodney to Vietnam, and aggregate explodes. Ironically enough, admitting we are now at the affection of the lie of narration, the point area things are at their best written, their best constructed, we activate to biking at the acceleration of light. As Rodney says, alveolate all those grunts so ably ventriloquised by Michael Herr in Dispatches, “war lets you go actual far and actual fast”.

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The Acceleration of Ablaze will vie with Daniel Pennac’s The Dictator and the Hammock for the appellation of tricksiest Euronovel of 2006. But while Cercas has aboveboard abundant affidavit for auspicious the agreeable to beddy-bye with the presentation, he understands that it’s accessible to be apathetic by this romance; and while he’s as absorbed in the fabulous anteroom of mirrors as any postmodern, clashing Pennac he is accurate not to be addled by his own conceits. Forget the biographical conundrum, because that’s aloof a way of affliction us with what we already apperceive about narrators and narration; what saves The Acceleration of Ablaze from actuality the arrangement writing-class atypical is its humanity. Like Soldiers of Salamis, it’s an intricate, macho analysis of guilt, monsterhood and authenticity, the impossibility of accretion and the believability of self-forgiveness.

· M John Harrison’s latest atypical is Nova Swing (Gollancz).

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