Luis Alberto Urrea
The Dream of the Celtby Mario Vargas Llosa
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 the plight of oppressed peoples around the world—especially the native/p>/b>/b>
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 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.
In The Dream of the Celt, Mario Vargas Llosa, who has long been regarded as one of Latin America's most vibrant, provocative, and necessary literary voices—a fact confirmed when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010—brings this complex character to life as no other writer can. A masterful work, sharply translated by Edith Grossman, The Dream of the Celt tackles a controversial man whose story has long been neglected, and, in so doing, pushes at the boundaries of the historical novel.
Luis Alberto Urrea
“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 Nobel Prize laureate turns to the early 20th-century Irish rebel Roger Casement's insurrection and execution in a saga typical of the author's renowned storytelling style.
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Read an Excerpt
Dream of the Celt, The
When they opened the door to his cell, the street noise that the stone walls had muffled came in along with the stream of light and a blast of wind, and Roger woke in alarm. Blinking, still confused, struggling to calm down, he saw the shape of the sheriff leaning in the doorway. His flabby face, with its blond mustache and reproachful little eyes, contemplated Roger with a dislike he had never tried to hide. This was someone who would suffer if the British government granted his request for clemency.
"Visitor," muttered the sheriff, not taking his eyes off him.
He stood, rubbing his arms. How long had he slept? Not knowing the time was one of the torments of Pentonville Prison. In Brixton Prison and the Tower of London he had heard the bells that marked the half hour and the hour; here, thick walls kept the clamor of the church bells along the Caledonian Road and the noise of the Islington market from reaching the prison interior, and the guards posted at the door strictly obeyed the order not to speak to him. The sheriff put handcuffs on him and indicated that he should walk behind. Was his lawyer bringing him good news? Had the cabinet met and reached a decision? Perhaps the sheriff's gaze was more filled than ever with the anger he inspired in him because his sentence had been commuted. He walked down the long passageway of red brick blackened by grime, past the metal doors of the cells and the discolored walls where every twenty or twenty-five paces a high barred window allowed him to glimpse a small piece of gray sky. Why was he so cold? It was July, the heart of summer, there was no reason for the icy cold that gave him goose bumps.
When he entered the narrow visitors' room, his heart sank. Waiting for him was not his attorney, Maître George Gavan Duffy, but one of his assistants, a blond, sickly looking young man with prominent cheekbones who dressed like a fop and whom he had seen during the four days of his trial, carrying and fetching papers for the defense lawyers. Why, instead of coming in person, had Maître Gavan Duffy sent one of his clerks?
The young man looked at him coldly. Anger and disgust were in his eyes. What was wrong with this imbecile? He looks at me as if I were vermin, thought Roger.
The young man shook his head. He inhaled before speaking:
"Regarding the petition for pardon, not yet," he murmured drily, making a face that made him look even sicklier. "It is necessary to wait for the Council of Ministers to meet."
The presence of the sheriff and another guard in the small room irritated Roger. Though they remained silent and motionless, he knew they were listening to everything. The idea oppressed his chest and made it difficult for him to breathe.
"But considering recent events," the blond young man added, blinking for the first time and opening and closing his mouth in an exaggerated way, "everything is more difficult now."
"Outside news doesn't reach Pentonville. What happened?"
What if the German admiralty had finally decided to attack Great Britain from the Irish coast? What if the dreamed-of invasion had taken place and the Kaiser's cannon were at this very moment avenging the Irish patriots shot by the British in the Easter Rising? If the war had taken that direction, his plans would be realized in spite of everything.
"Now it has become difficult, perhaps impossible, to succeed," the clerk repeated. He was pale, and Roger detected his skull beneath the whitish skin of his complexion. He sensed that behind him the sheriff was smiling.
"What are you talking about? Mr. Gavan Duffy was optimistic about the petition. What happened to make him change his mind?"
"Your diaries," the young man hissed, making another disgusted face. He had lowered his voice and it was difficult for Roger to hear him. "Scotland Yard found them in your house on Ebury Street."
He paused for a long time, waiting for Roger to say something.But since he had fallen mute, the clerk gave free rein to his indignation and twisted his mouth:
"My good man, how could you be so stupid?" He spoke slowly, making his rage more obvious. "How could you, my good man, put such things on paper? And if you did, how could you not take the basic precaution of destroying those diaries before embarking on a conspiracy against the British Empire?"
It's an insult for this fellow to call me "my good man," Roger thought. Ill-mannered because Roger was at least twice the age of this affected boy.
"Portions of those diaries are circulating everywhere now," the clerk added, calmer, though his disgust was constant, not looking at him now. "In the admiralty, the minister's spokesman, Captain Reginald Hall himself, has given copies to dozens of reporters. They're all over London. In parliament, the House of Lords, Liberal and Conservative clubs, editorial offices, churches. It's the only topic of conversation in the city."
Roger did not say anything. He did not move. Once again he had the strange sensation that had taken hold of him many times in recent months, ever since that gray, rainy April morning in 1916 when, numb with cold, he was arrested in the ruins of McKenna's Fort, in the south of Ireland: this did not have to do with him, they were talking about someone else, these things were happening to someone else.
"I know your private life is not my business, or Mr. Gavan Duffy's, or anyone's," added the young clerk, making an effort to lower the fury that saturated his voice. "This is a strictly professional matter. Mr. Gavan Duffy wanted to bring you up to date regarding the situation. And prepare you. The request for clemency may be compromised. This morning there are already protests in some newspapers, confidences betrayed, rumors regarding the content of your diaries. The favorable public response to the petition might be affected. Merely a supposition, of course. Mr. Gavan Duffy will keep you informed. Do you wish me to give him a message?"
With an almost imperceptible movement of his head, the prisoner refused. He turned immediately afterward, facing the door of the visitors' room. With his chubby face the sheriff signaled the guard, who unbolted the door and opened it. The return to his cell seemed interminable. During his passage down the long hall withthe rocklike walls of blackened red brick, he had the feeling that at any moment he might trip and fall facedown on those damp stones and not get up again. When he reached the metal door of his cell, he remembered: on the day they brought him to Pentonville Prison, the sheriff had told him that, without exception, all the prisoners who occupied this cell had ended up on the gallows.
"Could I take a bath today?" he asked before he went in.
The fat jailer shook his head, looking into his eyes with the same repugnance Roger had detected in the clerk's gaze.
"You cannot bathe until the day of your execution," said the sheriff, relishing each word. "And, on that day, only if it's your final wish. Others, instead of a bath, prefer a good meal. A bad business for Mr. Ellis, because then, when they feel the noose, they shit themselves. And leave the place like a pigsty. Mr. Ellis is the hangman, in case you didn't know."
When he heard the door close behind him, he lay facedown on the narrow cot and closed his eyes. It would have been good to feel the cold water from that spout invigorating his skin and turning it blue with cold. In Pentonville the convicts, except for those condemned to death, could bathe with soap once a week in that stream of cold water. And the conditions in the cells were passable. On the other hand, he recalled with a shudder the filth in Brixton, where he had been covered with lice and fleas that swarmed in the mattress on his cot and covered his back, legs, and arms with bites. He attempted to think about that, but over and over he kept remembering the disgusted face and hateful voice of the blond clerk decked out like a dandy whom Maître Gavan Duffy had sent instead of coming in person to give him the bad news.
Copyright © 2010 by Mario Vargas Llosa
Meet the Author
Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010 "for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual's resistance, revolt, and defeat." Peru's foremost writer, he has been awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and the Jerusalem Prize. His many works include The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The War of the End of the World, and The Storyteller. He lives in London.
Edith Grossman has translated the works of the Nobel laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, among others. One of the most important translators of Latin American fiction, her version of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote is considered to be the finest translation of the Spanish masterpiece in the English language.
Mario Vargas Llosa is Peru's foremost author and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1994 he was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most distinguished literary honor, and in 1995 he won the Jerusalem Prize. His many distinguished works include The Storyteller, The Feast of the Goat, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Death in the Andes, In Praise of the Stepmother, The Bad Girl, Conversation in the Cathedral, The Way to Paradise, and The War of the End of the World. He lives in London.
Edith Grossman has translated the poetry and prose of major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Marquez, Alvaro Mutis, and Mayra Montero, as well as Mario Vargas Llosa.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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?
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.