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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Dream of the Celt (2010)

by Mario Vargas Llosa

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I don’t recall ever reading anything by Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa before, so I can’t compare this historical novel and thinly-disguised biography to his other work, but the subject--the life of Sir Roger Casement--is one which interests me deeply. Adam Hochschild’s 1998 book of the Congo, King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, introduced me to the unforgettable figure of Roger Casement and I see Vargas Llosa was similarly captured. Casement was a man who harbored within him enormous contradictions and who struggled to live a life of meaning. Despite being hung for a traitor, he was a man of honor who stood up for his convictions, and who died for them.

Roger Casement (1864-1916) was born just outside of Dublin, Ireland, in a seaside location given variously as Sandycove or Kingstown. Though baptized as a child, Casement considered himself Protestant most of his life and embraced his Catholicism only shortly before his death. Much of what we know about him comes from his own journals in which he recorded his work, thoughts, travels, and sexual encounters. Vargas Llosa’s first section detailing Casement’s life and work in the Congo tracked so closely with Hochschild’s account that I realized both must have used the same source materials.

It is the second section, called Amazonia, which held my attention most closely. After Casement works with Protestant missionaries and the journalist and human rights activist E.D. Morel in the Congo disclosing the atrocities committed in the push to harvest rubber, he is dispatched by the British government to Peru to do the same there. He was not a well man by this time, for a white man in the tropics often developed debilitating illnesses that recurred with alarming frequency. Returning to the hot, humid environment of the Amazonian jungle caused his health to further fray. A photograph of Casement in Peru takes one aback; in it Casement looks positively skeletal.

Casement (on left) w/ Representative of Peruvian Amazon Company

Vargas Llosa describes Casement’s life in Peru with a verisimilitude and authenticity that makes those passages come alive. Casement had a nasty assignment, travelling to remote and dangerous outposts to conduct interviews and write detailed reports on atrocities. He couldn’t wait to be shot of it. But he persevered until he had enough damning evidence, only to find that the business interests trumped human rights in the Amazon, as they often did in colonial possessions.

Gradually Casement came to realize that freedom is something one must seize for oneself: "I have reached the absolute conviction that the only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can emerge from the miserable condition to which they have been reduced is by rising up in arms against their masters. It is an illusion devoid of all reality to believe…that this state will change when…there are authorities, judges, police to enforce the laws that have prohibited servitude and slavery in Peru since 1854…In this society the state is an inseparable part of the machinery of exploitation and extermination…If they want to be free they have to conquer their freedom with their arms and their courage…We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us. Why would the Empire that colonized us do that unless it felt an irresistible pressure that obliged it to do so? That pressure can only come from weapons."
Vargas Llosa also captures the beauty and pathos of Casement’s homosexual encounters, for Casement was a gay man in a world constrained by its own harsh and corrupted morality. By the time he lived in Peru, Casement was increasingly indiscreet in his encounters and his recording of them in his journals. Vargas Llosa makes the point that Casement must have keenly felt his solitary, unmarried life. When Casement leaves the Amazon and returns to Europe via New York, he encounters a handsome young Slav, Eivind, for whom he falls heavily, thinking he is finally enjoying a mutual and adult relationship. Eivind will be his undoing, for he sells Casement’s secrets, including his determination to work for Irish independence, to the British.

Casement had been knighted after his work in Africa. When, in a roiled and pre-WWI Europe, he made the decision to go to a militarizing Germany to get aid for Irish rebels, the British felt sufficiently betrayed to try him for treason. While in Germany, Casement apparently considered every possible means to weaken the hold of the British on her colonies wherever they might be, strengthening the case by the prosecution and ensuring he would never be granted clemency. He was hung in 1916, a mere three months after his dawn capture April 21 at McKenna’s Fort in Ireland.

The last section of Vargas Llosa’s novel details the confusion of Casement’s botched return to Ireland and the support for his case, or lack of it, by longtime friends and admirers. Many old friends, including E.D. Morel, considered Casement seriously off base in his collaboration with the German machine against England, and so never responded to his letters. Though his hangman called him "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute," even his Irish compatriots could not hail him wholeheartedly as a nationalist because rumors of his homosexuality offended their sense of moral right.

In the Epilogue, Vargas Llosa celebrates the return of Casement to the popular imagination:"With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path to being accepted for what he was: one of the greatest anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, ‘is many men,’ which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality."
In 1965, Casement’s bones were repatriated and rest now in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery.

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  bowedbookshelf | Sep 7, 2014 |
My third historical novel in a row. And it was not nearly as good as Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies or Laurent Binet's HHhH (not to mention Vargas Llosa's absolutely brilliant The Feast of the Goat or epic The War at the End of the World). Although it was still worth reading.

Bring Up the Bodies is deeply immersed in its history, but tells its story as a novel, largely dialogue between the characters, that makes their psychologies and motivations come alive--all while wearing its history lightly with little exposition or digressions into history. HHhH is an experimental novel that tries to faithfully recount its history, reluctantly follows novelistic conventions for short spurts (and quite well), but then retreats into the narrator's voice to apologize for fabricating anything.

In contrast, the majority of The Dream of the Celt reads more like a history book or biography than a novel. Those parts have little dialogue, few invented characters, and very extended descriptions of Roger Casement's trips to investigate and report on the epic atrocities in King Leopold's Congo and the Putumayo region of Peruvian Amazonia. These parts are almost always interesting (and horrifying), rarely tedious, but are not infused with anything of the special possibilities that is afforded by the novel of going deeper into a character's head, shifting perspectives, showing through stories, a plot, developing multiple characters, or just about anything else.

These historical chapters alternate with somewhat shorter chapters that depict Casement's final days before his execution for treason in Pentonville prison. These are more novelistic, with dialogue, somewhat more interesting characters (e.g., the prison's sheriff), and lots of flashbacks to Casement's role in what eventually became the Easter Uprising. These are perfectly fine, fast reading, but do not come anywhere close to The Feast of the Goat.

Altogether much of the interest of the book comes from learning about Roger Casement (who was largely new to me), more about the Congo and Putumayo, and the Easter Uprising and how that period in Ireland's struggle for independence intersected with the First World War. All interestingly told. And this is reason enough to read the novel. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Vargas Llosa cuenta la vida de Roger Casment. Comprometido con la causa de los oprimidos en Congo y Perú. A partir de una dura experiencia en contacto con la dura realidad de las colonias, se convierte en un ardiente luchador por la independencia de Irlanda. ( )
  alberto_lamana | Oct 15, 2013 |
Roger Casement was an Irish freedom fighter in the early twentieth century who has been nearly lost to history. His work in uncovering the abuses to the native peoples of the Congo and South America by the rubber barons was applauded. But when he made the connection that the British Empire was endangering his own native Irish language and culture in not so different a way that colonialism was destroying the Congo, his militancy went way beyond the comfort zone. He tried to set up an Irish regiment of soldiers who fought against Great Britain supported by Kaiser Wilhelm. Although the regiment never took off and the Easter Uprising was a failure, he was captured and eventually hung for treason. ( )
  mojomomma | Oct 9, 2013 |
Roger Casement is a figure in the history of anti-colonialism who is no longer widely remembered. In this exceedingly well-researched historical novel, Vargas Llosa recounts Casement's remarkable work at the turn of the 20th century to draw the world's attention to the real meaning and motives of the colonial adventures of the European powers. Casement was a Irishman of the Protestant class who began his career with a commercial and later diplomatic posting to the Congo. There he became aware of the horrendous abuse of native people who were enslaved, tortured and often murdered by white colonists, mostly Belgians in the service of King Leopold, in pursuit of harvesting natural rubber from the jungles. Casement's report to the British government exposed to the world the atrocities committed under the guise of bringing civilization to the "savage" peoples of the region. His report brought shame to the Belgian occupiers and world sanction against their practices. (For a complete account of the horrors of the Belgians in the Congo, see King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochshield.)

After exposing the horrors in the Congo, Casement was dispatched to the Amazon where even viler abuses were exacted against the Indians of the basin, this also in pursuit of rubber by a British commercial enterprise. Casement's report again received world wide attention, although promises to stop the abuses were never fully realized. For his efforts, he was knighted and was a figure of admiration in many parts of the world.

Over time Casement equated the rapacity and exploitation of colonial rule with the centuries-long British domination of Ireland, his native country. He fell in with the nationalist movement and came to believe that only the violent overthrow of British rule would bring freedom to the Irish people. At the outbreak of WWI, and in collusion with other well-known nationalists, Casement conceived a scheme to enlist Irish prisoners of war in German camps to form an Irish Brigade which would, alongside German troops, engage the British in Ireland to drive them from the country. This failed to materialize, but he persuaded the German government to supply arms to the Irish patriots. Casement learned very late of the planned Easter week rising and argued against it as a futile waste of blood that would only make martyrs of the nationalist leaders. Nonetheless, the arms were shipped secretly to the west of Ireland, but the British army quickly captured them and arrested Casement.

He was put on trial for treason and sentenced to hanging. The book alternates chapters between Casement's work in the Congo and Amazon and his prison reflections in the days before his execution.

One of the controversial aspects of the story is the discovery and publication by British authorities of Casement's so-called "Black Diaries" in which he recounted his sexual encounters with men and young boys. Vargas Llosa poses the thought that, while Casement was undoubtedly a homosexual, the diaries at least in some part were his fantasies about sexual contacts and not completely the reality of his sexual life. The diaries did much to quell any efforts to spare Casement's life and may have over the many years since kept Casement from receiving the praise given to other heros of the Irish independence movement. It was only in 1965 that the British government finally consented to the reinterrment of Casement's remains in Ireland, where he was given a patriot's recognition.

While a work of fiction, Varga Llosa's book is clearly an accurate history of Casement and his campaign against the evils of colonialism. The fervor of Casement for Irish independence led him to his alliance with Germany, which was not only a foolish quest, but brought the enmity of the British toward him at this time of intense patriotism and anti-German sentiment. In pleading his oppostion to the Easter rising as bound to bring only the bloody sacrifice of the nationalist leadership, he did not imagine that it was the martyrdom of Pearse, Connolley, Plunkett and the others that would stimulate the ever-growing sentiment against British dominion that ultimately saw the independence of Ireland.

This complex and important figure in world and Irish history deserves the sensitive and thoughtful treatment given him in Vargas Llosa's excellent book. ( )
  stevesmits | Aug 18, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Llosa, Mario Vargasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bensoussan, AlbertTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Casès, Anne-MarieTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Felici, G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glastra Van Loon, AlineTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grossman, EdithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KjellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rodriguez, CristinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schmidt, Rigmor KappelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Cuando abrieron la puerta de la celda, con el chorro de luz y un golpe de viento entró también el ruido de la calle que los muros de piedra apagaban y Roger se despertó, asustado.
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"In 1916, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement was hanged by the British government for treason. Casement had dedicated his extraordinary life to improving the plight of oppressed peoples around the world--especially the native populations in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon--but when he dared to draw a parallel between the injustices he witnessed in African and American colonies and those committed by the British in Northern Ireland, he became involved in a cause that led to his imprisonment and execution. Ultimately, the scandals surrounding Casement's trial and eventual hanging tainted his image to such a degree that his pioneering human rights work wasn't fully reexamined until the 1960s."--Dust jacket.… (more)

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