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A subtle and enlightening novel about a neglected human rights pioneer by the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa
In 1916, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement was hanged by the British government for treason. Casement had dedicated his extraordinary life to improving 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 ...
A subtle and enlightening novel about a neglected human rights pioneer by the Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa
In 1916, the Irish nationalist Roger Casement was hanged by the British government for treason. Casement had dedicated his extraordinary life to improving 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.
Vargas Llosa, who has long been regarded as one of Latin America’s most vibrant, provocative, and necessary literary voices—a fact confirmed when the Peruvian writer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010—brings this complex character to life as no other writer can. This masterful work, sharply translated by Edith Grossman, tackles a controversial man whose story has long been neglected, and in so doing, pushes at the boundaries of historical novel.
“Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.”—John Banville, The New York Review of Books
“This vibrant reimagining of history is also a brilliant exploration of conflicting moral claims. Who are the oppressors? Who are the truth-tellers? As always, Vargas Llosa remains a fiendishly clever teacher.”—The Washington Post
“At once a meticulously researched fictional biography and a clever psychological novel.”—The Economist
“Vargas Llosa is a masterful writer.”—The Miami Herald
“The Dream of the Celt fully succeeds in capturing the complexity of the man....Vargas Llosa has produced an epic apologia for this most sympathetic of traitors.”—The Daily Beast
The Celt of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel The Dream of the Celt — his first since receiving the Nobel Prize in literature — is Roger Casement, an Anglo-Irishman born in 1864 who wrote an epic poem of the same title and participated in the Irish nationalist movement that led to the Easter uprising in 1916. Like other historical figures featured in recent Llosa novels — Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican despot, in The Feast of the Goat and Paul Gauguin in The Way to Paradise — Casement was an ambitious and adventurous man with very strong sexual appetites, a dream subject for any novelist.
In his twenties Casement worked for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo and showed the ropes there to a Polish sea captain who later took the name Joseph Conrad and, according to Llosa, said Casement should have been credited as the coauthor of Heart of Darkness. An idealist who hoped to bring the three C's — Christianity, civilization, and commerce — to Africa, Casement eventually soured on the colonial project and in 1904 published a scathing expose of brutal practices in the rubber industry. One of his informants, an officer in the Belgian Force Publique, tells Casement how the military preserves ammunition: "Each time they fire they cut off the hand or penis of the man they shot," the captain explained. "To confirm that bullets are not being wasted on hunting." Facts such as this made Casement and his report famous in Great Britain and America.
After spending some years as a consul in Brazil, Casement doubled his fame by writing a second report in 1911, this time on the even more brutal and genocidal actions of colonial rubber harvesters in what was then northern Peru, Llosa's homeland. Although Casement's health frequently suffered in primitive locales and his life was often at risk because he threatened powerful economic interests, he managed to keep voluminous notebooks and took photographs that documented the torture that Europeans inflicted on the tribes of the Congo and Amazonia. Casement's files, as well as his reports, provide Llosa with a huge trove of information that he uses to create an impressive and sometimes overwhelming historical authenticity, particularly in the many pages devoted to the degradation of Indian culture in Peru, a subject he had previously treated in The Storyteller. One example: Llosa has a supervisor on one of the rubber plantations tell Casement how the owners retain their laborers: "Many indigenous are branded with the company initials: CA, that is, Casa Arana. Like cows, horses, and pigs. So they won't escape or be taken by Colombian rubber planters."
In his late forties, though knighted by Great Britain, Casement decried British colonialism in Ireland and joined the Irish Volunteers, a prominent separatist group. In 1914, while Britain was at war with Germany, he secretly traveled there to seek aid for the Volunteers and to recruit Irish prisoners of war held by the Germans to participate in the planned uprising. This well-documented period of Casement's life resembles a spy novel: betrayal by a lover who may have been a British double agent; coded messages and renamed ships; his landing on the Irish coast from a German submarine. But Casement was no Irish Bond: he was immediately captured, sentenced to death for treason, and hanged on August 3, 1916.
Given these materials, how could an experienced and award-winning novelist go wrong? In several ways, it turns out. The Dream of the Celt more resembles a laboriously constructed old-fashioned biography — with potted explanations of geography, economics, politics, and religion — than a contemporary novel. Llosa's style, at least in this translation, is pedestrian, long-haul prose, rarely figurative or inventive. Specifics about the ships Casement took, the hotels where he stayed, and the meals he ate exceed the need for verisimilitude. Llosa also repeats details about methods of torture as Casement moves from one remote station to another. What might occasion a confrontation with atrocity is instead sometimes summarized in the kind of statistics and lists one finds in nonfiction:
The system imposed by the rubber barons had already annihilated three-fourths of the indigenous population. Many undoubtedly had been victims of smallpox, malaria, beriberi, and other epidemics. But the immense majority disappeared because of exploitation, hunger, mutilations, the pillory, and murder.Hewing to a biographer's conscientiousness about facts, The Dream of the Celt is mostly exposition and narration, with very little invented dialogue and thus minimal on-page drama, despite the book's many exciting incidents. Llosa showed no such restraint when writing about Trujillo and Gauguin, and they became memorable speaking characters as well as plausible historical representations. The Dream of the Celt attempts to balance telling and showing by alternating chapters that describe Casement's adventures and chapters set in his 1916 prison cell, where the novelist does imagine dialogue with the few visitors allowed Casement. But these chapters are short and often slide from conversation to Casement's retrospection. Although the prison chapters also gesture at suspense — will Casement's plea for clemency be heard? — anyone who reads the dust jacket will know he was executed.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair
Excerpted from The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa Copyright © 2012 by Mario Vargas Llosa. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 21, 2012
In The Dream of the Celt, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa deals with the issues that clouded Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s life, making of him first hero, then traitor. The author received a Nobel Prize in Literature for this imagined life and it is not hard to see why: these are the same issues that drive the human dilemma onwards. When a person is executed, history tends to recall that individual by final crime, not by preceding acts of goodness. Roger Casement’s life magnifies the discrepancies of this practice. Casement sacrificed his career and health for human rights, bringing to light the heinous oppression of natives of the Congo and the Amazonian rain forest in the Western pursuit of easy profiteering of rubber. For his dedication, he was knighted by the country he served, Great Britain. Intimate exposure to the torture of colonialized people caused inner upheaval, so that he dedicated the remainder of his life to freeing his own people, the Irish, from the rule of their colonizers. The timing was critical. There was only one strong power not allied to Britain, and to that power—Germany—Casement turned during WWI, justifying the means by the end. We can best understand his execution in the light of wartime and the difficulty of forgiveness.
Born in Dublin in 1864, Roger Casement was the youngest of four children. His father was an army captain in whose exotic tales of service in India and Afghanistan little Roger delighted. As a Puritanical military man, Captain Roger Casement did not allow his wife to coddle their offspring. Anne Jephson (who converted to Puritanism to marry), baptized her children Catholics in secret, Roger at the age of four, and lavished affection, likewise, in secret. Secrets, early on, were pivotal to Roger’s reality.
He was the kind of boy to make any parent proud: smart and capable, an athlete who was a great swimmer and could beat children even older than he in races. When Roger was nine years old, his mother died. The trauma of losing his secret love caused temporary loss of speech for the child. Equally consequential was the abandonment by the seemingly strong military father. The unwritten belief of those who obey rules is that they will be rewarded for so doing, or at the least, not abandoned. The father who had shown no marked uxorious nature fell apart. A child as young as nine might not have drawn the link to love enjoyed and lavished in secret, but an older person, reflecting, would surely. The betrayal and collapse in meaning of Captain Roger Casement Sr, authority figure who had used the whip to punish misdeeds in his children, was on more than one level. He sent his children to their paternal great-uncle, John Casement, and his wife, Charlotte, who henceforth stood in as family and raised the children. The strength behind the whip was sheer façade: Captain Casement Roger went half mad with grief and used mediums and crystal balls to attempt to communicate with his dead wife. John Casement occasionally let these details slip.
Roger Casement lost himself in studies of languages and history, devouring books on foreign lands. He naturally reveled in tales of explorers and adventurers like Henry Morton Stanley, the man who allegedly located the missing altruist, Dr. Livingstone, in Africa. Meanwhile, Casement got a job as a teen in the shipping company in which his Uncle Edward worked. He made a few trips to West Africa and finally relocated there, to labor idealistically for years, believing he was bringing faith, civilization and order to a primitive land.
Roger Casement bought into the myth of Stanley as a Western altruist akin to Livingstone until he actually met Stanley, journeying deep into Africa with him, and witnessing what the latter was doing with his own eyes. In the name of the “humanitarian” King Leopold II of Belgium, to whom western powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885 granted two and a half million square kilometers of Africa after the fact, Stanley “came and went through Africa, on one hand sowing desolation and death—burning and looting villages, shooting natives, flaying the backs of his porters with the chicotes made of strips of hippopotamus hide that left thousands of scars on ebony bodies [ . . . ] and on the other opening routes to commerce.” The kind of commerce was of no benefit to the indigenous people, forced to sign contracts they did not understand and tyrannized for the sake of enriching their far off “benefactors” who were, apparently, unaware of that thugs and gangsters deprived the tribal people of life, limb, food and dignity in order to squeeze every drop of rubber out of the trees.
The whip, symbol of authority, must have eaten at Roger’s psyche once he saw it and what it had wrought. The same instrument used to keep him and his siblings in line by the father who had abandoned and deprived them of much love, was being used to subjugate an entire nation. Roger’s report horrified people of conscience in Great Britain and led to his being sent once more to verify the truth of rumors stretching, this time, from the rubber trade in the Amazon. The cruelty he encountered there was, if anything, more horrific.
Novelist Llosa makes absolutely no judgment about the disconnect between Roger Casement’s selfless human rights efforts, frequently putting his own life into grave jeopardy, and the revelation of his alliance with Germany, which Casement sought in an attempt to help the Irish nationalist movement. Casement was arrested at the failed Easter Uprising, which he may, in fact, have been on his way to attempt to quell. At the same time, the “black” diaries, in which Casement wrote of his homosexual and pedophile activities, damned him in the eyes of the public and helped seal his fate.
The Dream of the Celt could not have been written at a better time. Readers, much as those famous individuals who did or did not sign the petition for clemency surrounding Casement’s death sentence—must decide where they stand. If wrongdoing is unacceptable in so great a humanitarian as Roger Casement, what does that say about the rest of us?
Posted July 6, 2012
I have always been interested in Irish history and read a bit already about Roger Casement. I immediately regretted my Nook purchase. this is translated from Spanish and really doesn't do well in English. it is over sentimentalist conjecture and really annoyed me to read it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 19, 2012
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