“The Dream of the Celt” by Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 358 pages, $27)
Llosa, the Peruvian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, has penned a historical novel that reads as much like a biography. And while the subject is fascinating, those wanting a fast-paced narrative will be disappointed.
“The Dream of the Celt” tells the story of Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irish diplomat turned Irish nationalist. Many, like me, will not be familiar with this man, who was hanged in 1916 by the British government for treason.
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One narrative hook is: What made a government that earlier lauded and knighted this man for his humanitarian efforts later put him to death for treason?
Llosa tackles the complexity of Casement’s life in a thorough and readable way that will reward readers’ curiosity.
Casement, who was born in 1864, spent 20 years in Africa, in the Congo Free State. In 1903, he was commissioned by the British government to investigate the human rights situation there. He discovered that the rubber trade there involved horrific human rights violations, including summary executions and torture. Casement’s indefatigable pursuit of evidence in making his report uncovered a “plague that had vaporized a good part of the Congolese from the Middle and Upper Congo … composed of greed, cruelty, rubber, an inhumane system, and the implacable exploitation of Africans by European colonists.”
Because of Casement’s report, King Leopold II of Belgium had to relinquish his personal holdings in Africa, and the Belgian parliament took over the Congo Free State, which became the Belgian Congo. In 1906, Casement was sent to Brazil as a diplomat. Later, he was made part of a commission investigating murderous rubber slavery by the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company, effectively controlled by Julio Cesar Arana and his brother. There he uncovered abuses against the Putumayo Indians, who “were exploited iniquitously, hanged from the pillory, branded with fire and knife, and whipped until they bled to death if they didn’t bring in the minimum quota of thirty kilos of rubber every three months.”
Casement’s report led to changes, though Arana was never prosecuted. And what eventually saved the Indians was a switch to farmed rubber in other parts of the world.
Casement was knighted for his work for the Amazonian Indians, but he felt ambivalent about this because of his growing Irish nationalism and hatred of British colonialism. Llosa records from his notebook: “We should not permit colonization to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazonian Indians.”
Llosa alternates long accounts of Casement’s time in the Congo and in the Amazon with his few months in prison awaiting trial for treason. In many ways these short chapters set in the prison are more engaging than the rest of the narrative.
Casement lands in prison because of his work for Irish independence, specifically for his attempt to recruit an “Irish Brigade” consisting of Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany who would be trained to fight against Britain. He was arrested on April 21, 1916, three days before the Easter Rising began. Because he had long been considered a hero in Britain, many felt his sentence would be commuted. But then the British government released photos of diaries it claimed Casement kept in 1903, 1910 and 1911, which portrayed Casement as a promiscuous homosexual sex tourist with a fondness for young men.
The diaries are called the “Black Diaries” to distinguish them from a second set of journals kept by Casement, known as the “White Diaries” or “Amazon Journal.”
Over the ensuing years, many debated the authenticity of these diaries. In an epilogue, Llosa writes that his own impression is that “Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.”
Llosa has written a thorough and engaging account of a fascinating man, one who “is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness.”
The book’s title comes from the title of a long epic poem Casement wrote about the mythic past of Ireland. We all live with the mix of our dreams and our messy lives. Though Roger Casement lived his life out on a larger stage than most of us, this novel reminds us of the humanity he and we share.