Reading about Roger Casement in Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, The Dream of the Celt, brings to mind Robert Browning’s poem The Patriot. “It was roses, roses, all the way” when Roger Casement, the late Irish revolutionary, poet and human rights activist, then a British diplomat, tabled the famed Casement Report documenting human rights abuses in the Congo Free State in 1904. Similarly, he later conducted an investigation of “rubber slavery” among the Putumayo Indians of Peru by the British-registered Peruvian Amazon company. A knighthood was bestowed on him, among other honours, in recognition of this yeoman service. After his retirement from consular service in 1913, he turned to his kinfolk, the Irish people who were suffering British domination. He co-organised the Irish Volunteers in the same year and co-authored the manifesto of the organisation.
In 1916, in a twist of fate, Casement was stripped of his knighthood and ended up on the gallows. He was executed as a traitor to the British Crown, while his comrades-in-arms at Ireland made no obvious efforts to clear his name. “Thus he entered, and thus he went”, like Browning’s hero, “to the scaffold’s foot”. It didn’t help that public figures at the time of the stature of George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, W B Yeats and G K Chesterton campaigned for Casement’s release.
The crimes that Casement was accused of were done in Deutschland, and a narrow interpretation of the law – with a result later known as “hung on a comma” – spoilt Casement’s chances of clemency. Adding further dishonour were his infamous “Black Diaries”, in the man’s own handwriting, which were proof of his pederasty; perhaps the reason the Irish did not want a hero on hand who was also ostensibly a pervert. In those times of war, and considering such gross and serious accusations, memories of his greatness would not be encouraged. In fact, his burial with some respect happened many years later and after much continued effort from the people who still believed in him.
Mr Vargas Llosa, in his first novel after the Nobel win, has chosen to narrate Casement’s life with all its layers and incidents intact. Mr Vargas Llosa’s choice of protagonist stands tall with all due stature as a complex historical figure and a man of impeccable conscience, but with the imperfections of a human being. In spite of the magnitude of research this book seems to have needed, thankfully, in the able hands of the wordsmith that Mr Vargas Llosa is, it is no info dump.
In fact the novel never lacks pace, even on a single page. Mr Vargas Llosa uses a zigzag narration, a sort of “parallel cutting” between the present and the past to navigate the story, but in a rather simple and straightforward technique that one doesn’t quite expect from a master of words. Casement’s flashbacks from his prison cell take us through the atrocities he witnessed and documented, his impressions of the same, and some spicy reverie of the erotic exploits, which were also documented, though in private. But the author does not attempt to delve deeper into any situation presented in the book for a different view. Nor does he offer justifications for most of the attitudes we come across in the people in the book. The book is nothing like Mr Vargas Llosa’s oeuvre as we know it. It’s neither the sensual picaresque nor the serious political-historical fiction he has offered us before in his repertoire. Casement as a political hero is of the same genre as Mr Vargas Llosa’s previous political protagonists, Conselheiro, Mayta, Trujillo or Gauguin; yet, in the book, Casement’s sketch is not like that of the other heroes at all.
One could say the author doesn’t take much liberty with this hero, till the story is told and done with and the writer appears on the pages in the epilogue. But his empathies are manifest in the pages in quite a transparent manner. In the epilogue, where Mr Vargas Llosa takes off his cloak as the novelist-biographer, he puts forth his estimation in plain words.
Of the “Black Diaries”, he says, “The controversy regarding the Black Diaries did not end and probably never will. Did they really exist and did Roger Casement write them in his own hand, with all their obnoxious obscenities, or were they falsified by the British secret services to execute their former diplomat both morally and politically in order to create an exemplary warning and dissuade potential traitors? My own impression – that of a novelist, obviously – 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.”
Mario Vargas Llosa in conversation.
The book was published in Spanish in 2010, and the English translation from the able pen of Edith Grossman appears in 2012. The title is from a poem by the hero himself and the book itself could perhaps be seen as an eminently readable endeavour by Mario Varga Llosa to revive the honourable name of the hero and erase an uneasy and blemished past, at least a hundred years later.
THE DREAM OF THE CELT
Mario Vargas Llosa (2010)
Translated by Edith Grossman (2012)
Faber; Rs 499