Although Mario Vargas Llosa had already won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 just before the publication of The Dream of the Celt, now available in paperback from Picador, it is the kind of book that could only have further impressed the Nobel judges. It pushes all the right buttons. The novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Roger Casement, Irish Nationalist, anti-colonialist and human rights advocate, a man who was knighted by the British crown and then in 1916 hung as a traitor, after being vilified by the authorities for his sexual preferences. What more could a committee of judges want? How many more hot button issues could he have hit?
Born in Ireland in 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother who both died while he was relatively young, at age 16 Casement went to work for a British shipping company. Eventually he began to work for the British government, first as a consul and then as a diplomat charged with investigating human rights violations first on the rubber plantations in the Congo and then in Peru. Horrified by the actions of the colonial capitalist’s treatment of the natives and no longer willing to buy the traditional rationales for the inhumane conditions, his damning reports to the government made him a reputation as an intrepid fighter for the weak and the oppressed.
That reputation began to change when after his return from his Peruvian adventure he began to equate the British rule in his native Ireland with Imperialistic colonialism in Africa and South America. As the Belgians were to the Congolese, the British were to the Irish. And soon he was joining the ranks of the Irish nationalists in their struggle for sovereignty. Subscribing to the enemy of my enemy dictum, he hatched a scheme to work with the Germans during World War I, hoping to get them to organize a brigade of Irish fighters culled from prisoners of war, to supply arms to the Irish fighters and perhaps even coordinate a joint attack. When it didn’t work out, he was caught returning to Ireland, imprisoned and hung as a traitor despite pleas for clemency by a number of leading intellectuals of the day.
Llosa tells Casement’s story in flashbacks. He is in prison in Pentonville. He has been sentenced to death and is awaiting the government’s decision about clemency. The narrative alternates between his cell in the prison and the details of his career. The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on his experience in the Congo. The second, “Amazonia” deals with his trips to Peru and the last describes his Irish adventure.
Unlike a writer like Joseph Conrad, who laments how the savagery of the Congo perverts the cultivated European, Vargas Llosa places the heart of darkness in the European colonialists. The natives may be primitive, but it is the Europeans who are the savages, brutes taking vicious advantage of the local workers and interested only in money. Moreover the situation is no different in Peru, nor in Ireland for that matter. Llosa never has Casement use the term, but the view he seems to privilege is much like that of the noble savage. Making a pretense at civilizing colonialism enslaves and corrupts. It needs to be stopped at any cost. Llosa uses the character to make a very effective case, and Casement for all his faults comes across as a very sympathetic heroic character.
The English translation is by Edith Grossman who was recently awarded the International Latino Book Award for Best Fiction Translation. It is an engrossing translation of an engrossing novel.