The Toll of Political Idealism: ‘The Dream of the Celt’

After a distinguished career with many historical novels exploring the human toll taken by political idealism, Mario Vargas Llosa follows his 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature with the lightly fictionalized life of Sir Roger Casement. Familiar more to Irish nationalists for his anti-slavery activism and his execution for actions which were judged traitorous to the British crown which had knighted him for his services as consul, Casement’s reputation since his 1916 death after the failed Easter Rising has suffered.

Before his hanging in a London prison, British intelligence released his “Black Diaries”, full of not the humanitarianism which fueled his career uncovering the victims of the African and Amazonian rubber trades, but the “gloomy aureole of homosexuality and pedophilia” still debated from these fevered diaries as true, exaggerated, or invented — planted, grafted, or organic within the secret soul and clandestine identity of a lonely, driven, Anglo-Irish activist for justice.

Situated often in Vargas Llosa’s native Peru, where the core of this novel burrows into the depredations of colonialism owned by Britain and controlled by Peruvians far from the control of their capital or the law, the placement of Casement within late 19th and early 20th century capitalism sharpens the author’s portrayals of Latin Americans and Europeans complicity in raping the jungles, its women, and its resources. Vargas Llosa had run for president of his own struggling Third World nation; he shows a keen understanding of all sides in the debate over the fate of the “3 C’s” of capitalism, colonialism, and Christianity.

Casement’s early conversion– from servant of the British Empire to at first its representative in uncovering human rights abuses and then its foe allied with the Reich as the Great War– invited him to meddle in geopolitics where “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” His transformation nestles this dedicated campaigner within the globalizing struggles of a century ago which spiral (offstage, subtly, and persistently) forward from the 1880s to WWI. Casement prefigures, in his determination to discover the truth, our own guilty complicity with an unjust world order demand for ever-lower prices, ever-wider markets, and ever-greedier enterprises.

This does not mean the novel’s stuffed with set-pieces or talking heads. Substantial portions admittedly feel as if the print equivalent of a docudrama, full of staged re-enactments and voiceovers from letters and journals. While I was very familiar with the Irish content supporting this rather stolid narrative, Vargas Llosa takes a risk in conveying so much data in a rather unrelenting form of indirect first-person recollection to direct Casement’s vast recall of names, dates, and events from his prison cell to us. The pace, ably and transparently translated by the skilled Edith Grossman, remains steady, no easy feat. Yet less devoted readers may feel overwhelmed by the manner chosen to convey the information underlying Casement’s missions over 20 years in the Congo, seven in Latin America, with another year in the Amazon and a year and more between rebel Ireland and wartime Germany.

The first section moves between Casement’s last days in London and his upbringing in the North of Ireland in an Anglican family. Working for the explorer Henry Morton Stanley in Africa, Casement realizes the truth behind lies which gloss over the colonization and exploitation of the natives. As British consul, he rallies Europe against the Belgian Free State and inspires Joseph Conrad’s exposé.

The Irishman’s service for the King of England unsettles him; his Celtic background, stirred by his republican friends, rouses him against colonization closer to his own home. He tells his cousin: “In these jungles I’ve found not only the true face of Leopold II. I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.” Casement reasons that “I’ve shed the skin of my mind and perhaps my soul.”

However, Casement’s diplomatic success exposes him to reprisals. He is stationed in Brazil, unhappily. Sir Edward Grey, the Crown’s foreign minister, dubs Casement “a specialist in atrocities.” Soon, the British-directed Peruvian Amazon Company draws him into another rubber-fueled “mythic cataclysm” as endured by the overwhelmed natives of another tropical realm. Beaten, enslaved, tortured, they suffer a similar fate.

Their stern taskmasters across the Atlantic “denied the obvious with the same boldness because all of them believed that harvesting rubber and making money was a Christian ideal that justified the worst atrocities against pagans who, of course, were always cannibals and killers of their own children.” Casement, sent by the Crown, investigates conditions in Putumayo; his 1912 “Blue Book” on Amazonian malfeasance follows his successful African coverage. Revelations from the tropics of Peru precipitate the collapse of the Amazonian rubber industry–although the Western capitalists over in Asia rapidly find another opportunity for exploitation.

The intransigent and then insolvent Company–drawn deftly in its machinations–wants Casement’s head, so he must flee Peru. In Washington D.C., he reflects on his sudden lurches from destitution to promotion. “Less than two weeks before he had been a poor devil threatened with death in a run-down hotel in Iquitos, and now, an Irishman who dreamed about the independence of Ireland, he was the embodiment of an official sent by the British Crown to persuade the president of the United States to help the Empire demand that the Peruvian government respond forcefully to the ignominy of Amazonia. Wasn’t life an absurdity, a dramatic representation that suddenly turned into farce?”

Arthritic and tired, the middle-aged Casement retires from the Foreign Service. Yet he cannot rest. The burgeoning Irish republican movement excites him, and he donates his wages once given for anti-slavery projects to the pro-Gaelic efforts against the Empire closer to his native land. Casement feels “castrated” by witnessing so much agony caused by native capitulation to imperialism. He determines to help the Irish cause, to ensure that his homeland does not succumb.

The close of the novel takes him to Germany, where he tries to recruit Irish prisoners taken after fighting for the British into a brigade “beside but not inside” the army of the Reich, to aid the German assault on Ireland which Casement is promised will come, given the upheaval of the war. When this invasion does not happen, Casement must rush back to try to stop the premature, doomed rebellion of his Dublin comrades at Easter 1916. His own Good Friday landing the other side of the Irish coast and his capture by the British serve as a sober denouement to his gamble to make history matter.

What is left behind in America, he learns only while facing execution for betraying the Crown, are his personal diaries. “A piece of negligence that the Empire would make very good use of and that for a long time would cloud the truth of his life, his political conduct, and even his death.” Vargas Llosa sums up what may be Casement’s erotic notations well; in an afterword the novelist reckons from his acumen that Casement “wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.”

Vargas Llosa handles Casement’s evocations of his moral struggles and the recollections of his sexual predicament with the same sensitivity. He conjures up sympathetic listeners in the priests who advise Casement over his decades of fighting injustice, and in Mr. Stacey, who turns from “fat jailer” to nuanced confidant in Casement’s incarceration in Pentonville Jail. There, he is buried in unmarked dirt next to the path of the island’s first imperialists, grim legions who marched up Roman Way and Caledonian Road through bear-infested forests two millennia ago. This concludes an epic novel via silent harbingers–recalling Heart of Darkness in its evocative framing story–of the British colonists in the footsteps of Stanley and Dr. Livingstone, among whom Casement’s convoluted career began.

RATING 7 / 10