08.01.12

‘The Dream of the Celt’ by Mario Vargas Llosa: Review

Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel, The Dream of the Celt, tells the story of Roger Casement—Irish diplomat, humanitarian, sexual predator—and his shocking fall—and why he deserves to be remembered.

There exists within British public life a highly select rogues’ gallery whose members include Benito Mussolini, Robert Mugabe, Antony Blunt, and, most recently, Fred Goodwin, the disgraced former head of the spectacularly insolvent Royal Bank of Scotland. These men are among the handful to have been stripped of their knighthoods for a variety of crimes and misdeeds; suffice it to say that few have tended to feel much sympathy for their plight.

However, an exception must undoubtedly be made for Roger Casement, the diplomat and humanitarian whose “K” was revoked shortly before he was hanged for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising, a failed attempt to overthrow British rule in Ireland during the First World War. Having courageously exposed the barbarism of King Leopold’s Congo and the equally sadistic abuses of the Peruvian Amazon Company in Putumayo, Casement was gradually caught in a web of conflicting loyalties that led him in the space of a few years to resign from the Foreign Office and conspire with the Kaiser against those he no longer regarded as his countrymen.

The personal and political tragedy of this heroic yet flawed individual is the theme of Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, The Dream of the Celt, originally published in Spanish in 2010, shortly after the author had received the Nobel Prize. Told from the perspective of Casement awaiting his execution in London’s Pentonville prison, Llosa expertly charts the tortured evolution of his life and career, from loyal servant of the British Empire to ardent supporter of militant Irish nationalism.

Along the way, he was witness to some of the worst atrocities of European colonialism, meticulously recording the details of his fellow imperialists’ crimes as he prepared the two landmark official reports that brought him international fame and admiration while also paving the way for the modern human-rights movement. Another beneficiary of Casement’s researches was Joseph Conrad, who remarks to his friend at the beginning of The Dream of the Celt that he would never have written Heart of Darkness without him: “‘You’ve deflowered me, Casement. About Leopold the Second, about the Congo Free State. Perhaps even about life.’ And he repeated, dramatically: ‘Deflowered.’”

The use of the word “deflowered” here is no doubt intended to reflect Conrad’s own idiosyncratic grasp of English, but it also seems to allude to the most controversial aspect of Casement’s service in the tropics, where, amidst the horrors of murder, slavery, and exploitation, he also underwent a belated sexual awakening that would come to tarnish his reputation.

The so-called Black Diaries (as opposed to the White Diaries in which he recorded details for his reports) first came to light after Casement’s arrest when Scotland Yard detectives found a set of notebooks in his London home. They then leaked copies of pages from these diaries that described Casement’s numerous sexual experiences with young men, in most cases for money, during his time in Africa and South America. Long denounced by his supporters as an elaborate British forgery (particularly in deeply Catholic Ireland, where Casement quickly assumed the status of a martyr), forensic analysis has since essentially proven that the diaries really were written in Casement’s own hand. For Llosa’s part, as he explains in the novel’s epilogue, though he does not doubt their authenticity he deems it likely that some of the more lurid passages describe Casement’s fantasies rather than actual encounters.

There is clearly a sense in which it is only through fiction that it is possible to arrive at the truth about a figure as enigmatic as Casement—a man who literally kept two sets of books.

Indeed, this is a view shared by several Casement scholars, and Llosa generally seems to take few liberties with the facts in a novel that largely displays a firm grasp of the disparate historical contexts that shaped Casement’s life—from the depths of the Amazon and the Belgian Congo to radical dinner parties in London and conspiratorial meetings in Dublin. The text contains only the occasional false note, which is understandable given that certain terms have clearly been translated from English (or Irish) into Spanish and then back into English by Llosa’s translator Edith Grossman. Thus Casement did not write his Report on Putumayo in Dublin’s “Hotel Buswells” but in Buswells Hotel; similarly, Ireland is repeatedly referred to anachronistically as “Eire”—a Gaelic name that was not adopted until 1937 and has never been widely used, except, for some reason, on postage stamps.

But aside from such minor slips, The Dream of the Celt fully succeeds in capturing the complexity of the man whose life, he tells us, “had been a permanent contradiction, a series of confusions and cruel complications, where by chance or because of his own clumsiness, the truth of his intentions and actions was always obscured, distorted, turned into a lie.” There is clearly a sense in which it is only through fiction that it is possible to arrive at the truth about a figure as enigmatic as Casement—a man who literally kept two sets of books. Perhaps only the techniques of the novel can do justice to this tormented and profoundly isolated individual whose entire life was seemingly defined by deception and betrayal. From these promising materials, Llosa has produced an epic apologia for this most sympathetic of traitors.