The Dream of the Celt

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The latest novel by Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, has just been published in English. LAB’S Javier Farje reviews the book and the character of its main character, Roger Casement. Has the Peruvian writer done him justice?

celt1In 2002, Mario Vargas Llosa was asked to write the foreword for the Spanish translation of King Leopold’s Ghost by the American journalist Adam Hochschild. The book describes the atrocities committed by the Belgian king Leopold II and his henchmen in the so-called Congo Free State, the colony that the European powers and the USA gave him during the Scramble for Africa.

Vargas Llosa became fascinated by two characters in that terrible drama: Roger Casement, the British Consul who wrote the report on the atrocities, and E.D. Morel, the Franco-British journalist who made it his life’s mission to campaign against Leopold’s exploitation of the Congolese natives via his Congo Reform Movement. Later in the same year, Vargas Llosa wrote that “Casement and Morel deserve a great novel”. By 2006, he had already announced he was working on his novel about Casement.

Vargas Llosa travelled extensively to the regions where Casement lived and worked: the Congo, the Amazon, and Ireland. In November 2010 he published the Spanish version of his novel, El Sueño del Celta, a month after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The novel was a great disappointment. In it, Roger Casement, a complex and fascinating character, lacked the multidimensionality of other protagonists of Vargas Llosa’s earlier novels: the Conselheiro from The War of the End of the World, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo of The Feast of the Goat, or Paul Gauguin and Flora Tristán in The Way to Paradise. These characters materialise in the mind of the reader and become alive, speaking with the magic of Vargas Llosa’s masterful use of language.

Roger Casement lived during very interesting times. He was born near Dublin, Ireland, in 1864 and became an orphan by the age of 12. He moved to Liverpool, to live with relatives, and as a young man travelled to the Congo, to work as a company purser, administrator and later a diplomat. He evolved from a typical Victorian imperialist (he helped to fight the Boer during the South African War and believed that the African natives needed to be “civilised”) to a defender of the oppressed. His 1904 report on the Congo Free State forced the European powers to demand the end of the regime and the transfer of the territory to the Belgian State in 1908.

He was later sent to Rio de Janeiro as British Consul, from where he travelled to the Peruvian Amazon, to investigate atrocities committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company against the Witoto and Bora indigenous peoples in the rubber plantations of Julio César Arana, during the infamous Amazon Rubber Boom.

After this, he left the British diplomatic services and travelled to the USA to liaise with the Irish diaspora to fight for Irish independence. Finally, he went to Germany in the naïve belief that they would help the Catholic nationalists to rise against the British oppressor. The German Empire had no intention of supporting Irish independence. When he returned to Ireland to try to stop the Easter Rising, he was arrested, tried for high treason and hanged in Pentonville prison in London on 3 August 1916.

After he was sentenced to death, a campaign was organised to demand a reprieve. After the British authorities confiscated his belongings from his lodgings in Belgravia, they found the so-called Black Diaries, where Casement describes his homosexual encounters wherever he was posted or happened to travel to. A quick transcription of the diaries was distributed and the campaign fizzled out. Casement went to the gallows with his head held high and with a sense of betrayal.

Irish nationalists believed for many years that the Black Diaries were a forgery concocted by the British to undermine Casement’s reputation. In 2002, the diaries were handed over to a calligraphy laboratory in Dublin and after a detailed investigation, they concluded that the diaries were written by Casement.

Vargas Llosa adopts an ambiguous position in relation to Casement’s homosexuality. He argues that the Black Diaries are authentic but he also believes that many of those casual encounters in Madeira or Manaus described in his journals were the product of Casement’s imagination; the Irishman writes about things he would have liked to happen but never did. Vargas Llosa opts for this ambiguity as a novelist, to add an element of mystery to his story. Fair enough, but even here he fails to “exploit” this ambiguity and never gets anywhere with the story.

His detailed research on Casement’s life, times and places seems to be lost in the novel and he wasted the chance to find out more about Casement’s Amazon campaign apparently due to lack of time. When Vargas Llosa went to Peru, he contacted a common friend, Róger Rummrrill, a specialist in the Amazon. Róger suggested he contact me to visit the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where he would probably have found the most complete archive on the Amazon rubber tragedy: 17 boxes full of documents, hand-written notes and newspaper clippings. He would have found fascinating articles related to the exploitation of indigenous peoples in the Putumayo region. I wonder if his novel would have benefited from hours of reading in the majestic and silent rooms of the Bodleian.

Both Roger Rummrrill and I had the chance to see the archives many years ago and I remember how our minds were transported to the terrible times of Arana and his thugs just by reading those documents in the quiet ambiance of that magnificent library. His brief reference to the House of Commons Committee on the Putumayo, which investigated the atrocities, is disappointing, among other reasons because he does not take advantage of Arana’s appearance before the committee.

There are glimpses of Vargas Llosa’s brilliance, when he describes the tyrannical landscape of Casement’s travels, the humid and oppressive Congo, the beautiful but damned Amazon, cold and windy Ireland, and distant Germany. But sometimes The Dream of the Celt reads like a flat biography of Casement, it lacks the passion and commitment Vargas Llosa has always shown for his characters.

When one reads the novel, it seems as if he wrote it in a hurry, as if he had to meet some despotic deadline, with no time to spare to review, change, transform and rewrite what was already written. Vargas Llosa said that Roger Casement deserved a great novel. Unfortunately, The Dream of the Celt is not it.