Nobel Prize Winner Vargas Llosa Examines the Doomed Life of an Irish Patriot

Lee Polevoi

 

The Dream of the Celt

Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar Straus Giroux, 356 pages

 

Had Roger Casement’s tragic and eventful life been a work of fiction, no one would have believed it. In The Dream of the Celt, a re-imagining of the doomed Irish patriot’s life and times, Mario Vargas Llosa has opted for a sort of combined fact/fiction approach. First published in 2010 (the year Vargas Llosa received the Nobel Prize in Literature), and recently translated into English, this scarcely fictionalized life resembles, in many ways, a straightforward biography, with the spark of literature flickering intermittently throughout.

 

Roger Casement (1864-1916) grew up in Ulster, clerked for a Liverpool shipping line and then broke with his past to work for the famed explorer Sir Henry Stanley and British commercial interests in Africa. He went on to produce scathing reports on colonial abuses both in the Belgian Congo and on the rubber plantations of Peru. From there, as an impassioned Irish nationalist, he traveled to Germany to enlist support for the botched Easter Rising of 1916. Arrested by British authorities, he was hanged for his sins, but not before the humiliating discovery of the “Black Diaries,” purporting to describe a string of homosexual encounters through much of his adult life.

 

Casement’s early experiences while traveling in the Belgian Congo shocked and disillusioned him. No country that claimed “civilization” as its colonizing impulse could justify the use of the terrible chicote whip, a “vine-like cord” used by the feared Force Publique to punish slaves and keep them in line:

 

“Its mere presence among the members of the Force Publique had an intimidating effect: the eyes of black men, women, and children grew large when they saw it, the whites of their eyes gleamed with terror in their deep-black or blue-black faces, imagining that after every mistake, slip, or failing, the chicote would rip through the air with its unmistakable whistle and fall on their legs, buttocks and backs, making them shriek.”

 

The Dream of the Celt is framed by chapters of Casement’s internment in Pentonville Prison interspersed with flashbacks of his life in Africa, South America and Ireland. Vargas Llosa portrays his final days with great compassion, as many illustrious visitors seek to comfort him and offer hope that an international clemency campaign will yet result in saving his life. Our knowledge—and Casement’s dreaded suspicions—that things will turn out differently adds to this inherently tragic tale.

 

 

In these chapters, Casement seems most alive as a “fictional” character—that is, as a living, breathing creation of its author. In the alternating chapters detailing his past, the author employs a semi-documentary style, with long passages that tell rather than show the effects that these agonizing crimes against humanity had on its self-appointed chronicler:

 

“Making superhuman efforts to control the squalls of depression, the headaches and nausea, the deterioration of his body—he felt he was losing weight, because he had to make new holes in his belt—he continued visiting villages, posts, stations, questioning villagers, functionaries, employees, guards, rubber harvesters, doing his best to overcome the daily spectacle of bodies martyrized by whippings, hands chopped off, and nightmarish accounts of murders, imprisonments, extortions, and disappearances. He began to think the generalized suffering of the Congolese had saturated the air, the river, the vegetation around him with a particular odor, a stench that not only was physical but also spiritual, metaphysical.”

 

The Dream of the Celt works to the extent that the reader is persuaded by Roger Casement’s heartrending story. A different narrative strategy, with a greater emphasis on dramatic retellings of significant events, might have yielded more emotionally satisfying results.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow magazine’s chief book critic, is completing a novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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