Javier Cercas: Fortunes of war and peace

The bestselling Spanish writer Javier Cercas has turned his gaze from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. He talks to Michael Eaude about success - and despair
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It's impossible for a writer to survive success with dignity," explains Rodney, the main character of Javier Cercas's new novel The Speed of Light (Bloomsbury, £14.99). Inevitably, I ask Cercas about his own success. Has what he calls the "jubilant toxin of triumph" damaged him, as it does The Speed of Light's unnamed narrator?

Cercas's previous novel, Soldiers of Salamis, sold over a million copies, won numerous prizes and changed his life. A dream bestseller, it enabled him to give up the university day-job. "I certainly don't think success is a bad thing," Cercas laughs happily. We are in the office-flat he uses for writing. It is only five minutes walk from one of Barcelona's main avenues, the Diagonal, but lies on a quiet, narrow residential street of small shops and car-repair garages on ground floors. This is the bohemian and artisan quarter of Gràcia, riddled with secret squares.

I think of the flat in The Speed of Light, where the narrator shuts himself away from the world in a protracted nervous breakdown, brought on by disaster unleashed by his vanity on becoming a successful author. But this flat is orderly and bright. And, although Cercas enjoys including in his novels elements of his own life, he is absolutely not like his narrator.

Friendly, committed and serious, Cercas is like his books. "The problem arises when someone who is successful thinks it's due to merit and not chance," he says. "The most important thing is to write the best book you can, the book not even you yourself thought you were capable of writing. It's another question whether you have more or less readers." I rebuke him for false modesty. "Not at all, I'd written three previous novels and worked very hard to learn how to write. Salamis's success, though, was down to factors that did not depend on me".

Many critics saw Soldiers of Salamis as a dazzling, postmodern game of a book, in which real people rub shoulders with fictional characters, the nature of literature is debated, the narrator is called Cercas but is not the author, and in which the mystery investigated is left unresolved. It is no game, though: these striking effects should not conceal the high, serious ambition of this very accessible novel about the nature of war and heroism.

Toward the very end of the Spanish Civil War, in an encounter in the forest, a young Republican soldier spares the life of a fugitive fascist. The first part of the novel details the wanderings of this fascist, Rafael Sánchez Mazas, in the forest and how he is helped by local Republicans, some of them deserters. The second explains Sánchez Mazas's career.

A real person, he had spent the previous decade penning bloodthirsty articles to foment military rebellion and, after the war, became a minister of Franco, a millionaire and a well-known writer. "If anyone deserved to die, it was Sánchez Mazas, wasn't it?", as Miralles says in the novel. However, Cercas does not deal in simple black and white. What interests him is not just to portray the brutality of fascism, but "I wanted to investigate the fatal attraction of evil". Thus he shows too the idealism of the art-loving intellectuals who founded the Spanish Falange, and persuaded themselves that they were leading a national-socialist revolution to revive an impoverished country.

In its third and final part, Soldiers of Salamis rises above the ordinarily good to heights of beauty and intensity. The narrator, both fleeing from his own life and on a quest to find himself, meets the Spanish exile Miralles in an old people's home in France. Through Miralles, possibly the soldier who spared Sánchez Mazas in the forest, Cercas pays tribute to the thousands of forgotten fighters against fascism. He brings off the difficult task of portraying a hero without sentimentality. Miralles names his long-dead young comrades without self-pity. "No one remembers them. No one."

This novel came out in Spain at the right time: when victims of Civil War and postwar atrocities, forced into a 60-year silence, were beginning to speak out. A popular radio programme that called for testimonies of the 1940s was overwhelmed by listeners writing and phoning in; mass graves of victims of fascism were being opened. In 2002, even Aznar's conservative government was forced to condemn Franco's 1936 military rebellion.

The Speed of Light, started in fact before Salamis, also deals with war - this time, in Vietnam. As in Salamis, Cercas uses a young writer-narrator to delve into the past. "I'm not the sort of writer who writes out a plan and follows it through to the end, as Flaubert, for example, does. I start from an image, something I don't understand, and then I write to find out what happens. I really don't know where this search will take me".

In Salamis, the bright, clear image that yet hides a mystery was of the soldier in the forest sparing another's life. "In The Speed of Light, I actually saw the image that originated my story. I shared an office with a guy who had been in Vietnam. He was a strange guy, he intrigued me. One quiet afternoon, I saw him sitting on a bench watching some kids playing. I had the impression he'd been there a long time. I went over to greet him, but then I didn't. That was the image".

Rodney, a messy-haired, rough-dressed loner, is the guy on a bench in Urbana, a small Midwest university town, where the narrator, from Catalonia, is working as a Spanish teacher in the late 1980s. Everyone else avoids Rodney, but the narrator and he start talking. Then, in the Christmas vacation, Rodney disappears. The narrator goes to Rodney's house to find out what had happened to him, and there he meets his father and begins his quest to learn Rodney's story - a story of evil and a journey into the heart of darkness. "What is interesting is the search for the truth. This truth is evasive. At the end, there is a big hole at the centre of the novel. We do not know exactly what happened to Rodney in Vietnam. There is a silence."

The Speed of Light also contains a discussion on American literature. Rodney and the narrator develop their friendship through long conversations about writing in Treno's bar. Rodney asks if he likes Hemingway. "Frankly, I think he's shit," replies the brash narrator. A few weeks later, Rodney responds: "[Hemingway's]a very good idiot detector: idiots never like Hemingway".

So, I ask Cercas, "Do you like Hemingway?" Rodney's is his view: it's not now fashionable, yet one that Cercas defends strongly. "20th-century literature is unimaginable without Hemingway, the transparency and precision he achieves... I know no better short-story writer." I tell him his own prose does not seem so much Spanish, as part of the American tradition. "I take it as a compliment. Spanish prose is baroque, with too many adjectives. English is more direct."

Cercas's writing has echoes of Scott Fitzgerald, in the intense, shining clarity of its emotion, and of Faulkner, with his long, rolling sentences on memory and the past and his use of a tricky, unreliable narrator - but not of Hemingway. "Hemingway's not in the book for literary reasons, he's a symbol. Apart from whether he's a good or bad writer, he plays a role in the book as a writer crushed by his own legend, destroyed by success". Rodney shares with Hemingway his lucidity - and his despair. Unlike Hemingway, Rodney cannot ward off despair by writing.

If Soldiers of Salamis was the story of an evil man whose life is saved by another's heroic action, The Speed of Light is darker. Rodney, cultivated and likeable, has taken part in massacres. "I am not an optimist," Cercas tells me. "It's best not to expect too much of people. There are numerous stories of kind-hearted people turning into beasts in war. Fear turns us into beasts. It's best to know we all have this potential for evil".

It takes time to realise that this is Cercas's central theme: evil is not outside us, but in and among us. "The recent row in Germany about the film on the last days of Hitler was incredible. People objected ... because it showed Hitler as human. But this is the problem. I wish he'd been a Martian, but he liked his dog, his wife loved him, he was a human being just like us... Evil people are essentially ordinary. It is not so much Hannah Arendt's 'banality of evil', but the banality of evil persons. Our infinite capacity to harm others, the fact that evil is among us. This is what a writer has to look at."

Javier Cercas will be appearing at 6.30pm on Tuesday 7 November at the Instituto Cervantes, 102 Eaton Square, London SW1: tel: 020-7235 0353

Biography: Javier Cercas

Javier Cercas was born in 1962 in Ibahernando, in the Spanish province of Cáceres, near the Portuguese border. He came to Girona as a child when his parents migrated to Catalonia. In the 1980s he taught at the University of Illinois in Urbana, setting for The Speed of Light. From 1989 to 2006 he was a lecturer in Spanish Literature at Girona University. His fourth novel, Soldiers of Salamis (2001), became a runaway success in Spain, and was made into a film. In Anne McLean's translation, it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. In 2005, Bloomsbury published in one volume The Tenant and The Motive, two early books. The Speed of Light, again translated by Anne McLean, is also published by Bloomsbury. Javier Cercas now lives in Barcelona.