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12.17.10

The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks great British reads. This week: Richard Mabey explains why weeds are so important, Mario Vargas Llosa’s surprising new hero, and Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir of captivity.

In Praise of Weeds

An icy English winter, like the one that has begun this year so early, is excellent, it seems, for Danish scurvy grass, one of the subjects of Richard Mabey's wonderful new book, Weeds, reviewed in the TLS this week by David E. Cooper. Danish scurvy is a garden-invader which should normally stay out of town on cliff-tops and sea walls but, unlike related species, it is genetically equipped to benefit from the use of salt to grit our roads. Hence it is this week moving inland in pursuit of municipal lorries, part of the larger process of natural selection which, Mabey explains, has enabled weeds to prosper, not least by “gate-crashing civilization.”

Weeds have “evolved to grow in unsettled earth and damaged landscapes”–ploughed fields, say, and bombsites. By dint of this, weeds—though they presumably lack “purpose”—have “something close to a role” in the scheme of things: “to stabilise the soil” and otherwise enhance “stable plant systems.” Agriculture and horticulture would have been a “passing fancy” without the assistance of the very weeds that farmers and gardeners have ever since been cursing.

Some weeds are simply plants that we don't like or are in the wrong place. Other weeds—Japanese knotweed and dandelions, for example—really do possess features that dispose them to get into, stay in and take over the wrong places. They are typically invasive, highly adaptive, parasitic and adept at mimicking more benign plants.

Weeds can most usefully be seen, in Mabey's view, as a cultural category of plants. Japanese knotweed, for all its invasive attributes, was an ornamental plant for the Victorians. The knotweed’s problem, these days, is less that of being in the wrong place than in the “wrong culture.” Certainly, Cooper concludes, it is the “cultural profiles” of weeds, as much as their ecological ones, that attract Mabey’s reveries.

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El Sueno del Celta/The Dream of the Celt. By Mario Vargas Llosa. 464 pages. Alfaguara. $19.99. ()

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Surprising New Hero

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize came at a good moment. He had been working for some three years on a major novel which was just ready to be published. The new novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), is judged by David Gallagher to be "a magnificent addition to an oeuvre which the Swedish Academy have rightly distinguished."

The original Dream of the Celt is the title of an epic poem which the executed British traitor and early human rights campaigner, Roger Casement, wrote in 1898. So why did Vargas Llosa choose this controversial Irishman who served the British Crown with loyalty, was knighted in 1911, then hanged for treason five years later? 

Gallagher argues that this protean character, who managed to lead many lives simultaneously, would strongly attract a novelist who has always been interested in what separates the image we project from what we really are and do. When Casement was writing The Dream of the Celt in 1898, the British Consular Service, which employed him, did not know that Casement was already nurturing the deepest contempt for the British Empire while leading a complex life of promiscuous homosexuality.  

Then there is Vargas Llosa’s interest throughout his work in the differences between actual events as they unfold, and the historical narratives that later claim to describe them. When Casement was arrested in April 1916, he was trying to smuggle arms into Ireland on a German submarine, but he also wanted to get there in time to prevent the Easter Rising, certain that it would fail, as he had not been able to get the Germans to send troops in support. And yet at his trial he was accused of travelling to Ireland in order to provoke the Easter Rising. “Is all history like that,” muses Vargas Llosa’s Casement as he wastes away in Pentonville Prison, awaiting execution. Vargas Llosa, Gallagher concludes, clearly likes Casement, and in what is a brilliantly persuasive novel, he makes the reader like him—as a man deeply flawed, dizzyingly complex, probably mad, yet moved by deep conviction, and nobler than most of their contemporaries.  

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Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. By Ingrid Betancourt. 544 pages. The Penguin Press. $29.95. ()

Ingrid Betancourt’s Unwavering Humanity 

The influence of Vargas Llosa is seen by Sudhir Hazareesingh in Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid Betancourt’s much publicized memoir of her six-and-a-half-year captivity by guerrillas in Colombia.

The book has been well received—almost revered—in France. But it is a testimony to the widespread international fascination for Betancourt’s story that her memoirs have been simultaneously published in nine languages and 12 countries.

The deeper reason for this international success, says Hazareesingh, is that Betancourt is a genuine product of two cultures. Her writing style is steeped in the Latin American literary tradition: the title evokes a verse by Pablo Neruda, and the memoir’s main themes reflect the influence of Llosa (the struggle for freedom within a repressive environment) and García Márquez (the evanescence of time; the perception of reality through imagination and folklore). As a very European work, her serene tone evokes both the classics of concentration camp literature, notably the writings of Jorge Semprún, and the notion of freedom-as-resistance which comes from the intellectual lineage of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.