Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt)
The latter part of the life of Roger Casement‘s life is relatively well known in Britain and Ireland. He was caught running guns from Germany in 1916, with intent to supply them to the Irish rebels who led the Easter Rising. Despite his long service to Britain (he was knighted), wartime patriotic fever led to his being convicted and hanged at Pentonville Prison. What is less well known is his early life. He went to the Belgian Congo, convinced of the mission of the white man to bring enlightenment to the natives. However, after some time there, where he met both Stanley and Conrad, he changed his views and campaigned vigorously against the barbaric treatment of the natives by the rubber growers and, in particular, King Leopold II of Belgium. He was commissioned by the British government to investigate the matter thoroughly and produced a report which led to major changes in the Belgian Congo as well as the hatred of Leopold and his supporters. As a result of his successful investigation, he was asked by the British government to do the same thing for the natives in Iquitos, Peru (which probably explains Vargas Llosa’s interest), who were also being brutalised by the rubber growers. In Peru, the rubber growers were part of a British company, the Peruvian Amazon Company, run by Julio Arana. He carried out his investigation, which also led to major changes, though they were, at least in part, caused by the changing market, with much of the world’s rubber being supplied by British colonies in Asia. It is only after this that he became active in Irish politics.
Vargas Llosa writes a novelistic biography of Casement. Much of the book is chronological, though interspersed throughout with excerpts from his later life, particularly his time in Pentonville Prison, after his trial, while awaiting to hear the decision on his appeal for clemency. As well as telling the story as a novelist – giving us glimpses not only of Casement’s conversations and meetings with various people but also his innermost thoughts – Vargas Llosa focuses on three aspects.
The first concerns what converted Casement to Irish nationalism, a man from a Protestant background (though with a Catholic mother who secretly had him baptised) and part of the British establishment. The main motivator seems to have been his feeling that the brutal treatment of the natives both in the Belgian Congo and in Peru was not unlike the treatment of the Irish by the British. When challenged that the comparison was not valid as the British were far less brutal, Casement vigorously defended his comparison. Clearly, at least according to Vargas Llosa, it is this treatment by the colonial powers that set him off on the road which led to the gallows.
The second aspects concerns the brutality. In his earlier novel, La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), Vargas Llosa described in some detail the brutality of both the Trujillo regime and the torture inflicted on those involved in the Trujillo assassination plot. He received some criticism for his graphic display of the torture to which he responded that the reality was much worse. Once again, we are given a graphic treatment of the brutality meted out to the natives. It might be argued that it was more valid in the case of La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), as it concerned recent history. However, all the people involved in Peru and the Belgian Congo are long since dead. Vargas Llosa, however, could well point out that such treatment is sadly not merely a thing of the past but can still be found throughout the world and his treatment of it is necessary to shock us into realising how horrible such brutality is.
The third aspect concerns Casement’s homosexuality. Casement allegedly wrote two sets of diaries, known respectively as the white diaries and the black diaries. The black diaries contained detailed descriptions of his homosexual encounters. However, it has been alleged that the black diaries were forged. Whether they were forged or not, they certainly turned out to be useful for the British authorities, who showed them to key people at the time of Casement’s appeal for clemency, in order to turn them against Casement. This tactic seems to have worked in part. Vargas Llosa makes much of Casement’s homosexual activities, describing his lusting after men and his activities with them. It is up to the reader to judge how important this is or whether it is used to show that Casement was a mere mortal, with the sexual lusts found in many human beings. Incidentally, Vargas Llosa’s view is that the diaries were written by Casement but some of the details were his own fantasies and not actual events.
While certainly not a bad book, I did not find this to be one of his best. It will do well as it was published in Spanish a few months before he won the the Nobel Prize for literature. But I felt that it added little to our knowledge of Casement, which is already well documented, nor did Vargas Llosa give a particularly original or interesting perspective on Casement, except, of course, to bring his story to the attention of his many readers who might otherwise have been unaware of it.
First published in 2010 by Alfaguara
First published in English in 2012 by Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Translated by Edith Grossman