The Dream of the Celt first appeared in Spanish in November 2010, three weeks after Mario Vargas Llosa, its author, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like many of his fans, my expectations were high. The little amount of information I could gather about its plot was sufficient to hint at a return to form for Vargas Llosa whose latest novels, The Bad Girl and The Way to Paradise didn’t show him, in my eyes, at the top of his game. My once-favorite contemporary author has always liked to fictionalize culturally loaded eras in relation to historically significant characters who make them. It was strange to see Vargas Llosa fail with his tale of a radical chic, in The Bad Girl, and with Paul Gauguin, in The Way to Paradise. This time though, he seemed to have made a better match: the fin de siècle/Edwardian England and Roger Casement, a martyr to some of that period’s defining causes: anti-colonialism, homosexuality and Irish republicanism.
Vargas Llosa’s novel opens in 1916 in a cell in Pentonville Prison, where Oscar Wilde was held during his trials two decades previously. Convicted to death by hanging, Casement awaits the result of his appeal against the sentence. Outside his cell, a public campaign has attracted attention to his case and among the signatories for the clemency are G. K. Chesterton, John Galsworthy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was responsible for gathering the signatures. One doesn’t need to be a historian to know the outcome of the appeal, as the book’s back cover informs us about Casement’s fate: he was hung on August 3.
Joseph Conrad’s signature is a notable absence in Doyle’s list. It is not only notable, but also unexpected, as Casement and Conrad, who first met in Congo in 1889, had a lifelong friendship which came to an abrupt end with Casement’s trial. They were disillusioned with Western civilization and coming from peripheral backgrounds, they were both vulnerable subjects of the empire.
Despite the mouthwateringly interesting nature of this friendship, Vargas Llosa, who devotes many pages to describing their encounters, leaves the question, which kept many Conrad and Casement biographers busy, unanswered. Being both outsiders of the British establishment, how could these two men have differed so dramatically at the time of Casement’s trial in 1916?
Born in Dublin in 1864, Casement, like Conrad, lost both his parents in his childhood and was raised by his uncle before he became a clerk in England. An extremely handsome man with curly hair and a pointed beard, Casement led an increasingly public life — not that of a novelist, but that of a consul, in which capacity he would later become a public campaigner for human rights.
Assisting King Leopold’s International Association for the Congo in 1884, when he was only 20 years old, Casement led the life of an adventurer in his youth. When he went back to Congo at the end of the decade, he was responsible for recruiting natives for a railway project which was planned to link Congo to Matadi, in order to make the job of carrying rubber, the leading export of the region, easier for the colonizers.
During his administrative tenure in Congo Free State, Casement became a lucid witness to the atrocities in the region, which he meticulously recorded in his diaries and reports. Ruled under the authority of Belgium’s King Leopold, Congo Free State was, for Casement, capitalism at its worst. Rubber was collected through slave labour and the treatment of natives by Belgium’s military personnel was often ruthless if not outright barbaric. He witnessed how slaves were made to drink defecations of soldiers; natives who were often chained together and were beaten with rifles until they fell to the ground. Hands were occasionally cut from the wrist, as a punishment for inactivity or rebellion, and skulls of murdered natives were used as ornaments by Belgian officials.
Seen by his colleagues as a sophisticated, trustworthy, and reserved gentleman, Casement had little reason to turn his observations into an official report the damning conclusions of which might have been disadvantageous for his own reputation and career. Nevertheless, Casement took detailed notes of his experiences and it was during this second period in Congo that he first met Conrad, then a thirtyish sailor, who reached Matadi after a voyage on board the ship Ville de Maceio.
Like Casement, who detailed his experiences in a private notebook, Conrad kept, for the first and only time in his life, a diary which became one of his earliest English texts, later christened as “The Congo Diary” by Conradian scholars. Describing his first impressions of his new acquaintance, he described Casement as a man who “thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic.” Conrad and Casement then shared a hut for almost a month during which time they found ample opportunity to exchange their often horrific experiences in the region. Conversing with a native speaker of the English language delighted Conrad who was struggling to write proper English for his future literary projects.
Also impressed with Casement’s ability to speak native tongues and the ease with which he could navigate in an area he found impossibly foreign, Conrad had nothing but admiration for his new friend. “He could tell you things,” he wrote, “things I’ve tried to forget; thing I never did know.” Readers of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s most famous tale, will recognize similarities in between Conrad and Marlow; Casement and Kurtz also have a certain resemblance, which may help explain Conrad’s fascination with enigmatic characters whose characters he found difficult to penetrate.
Casement and Conrad went several times on short expeditions in neighboring villages and were equally convinced that the Western presence in Congo was barbarism masquerading as civilization. They didn’t meet again for almost a decade. In 1903, a year after he entered the British consular service, Casement asked for Conrad’s support and his eye-witness account in order to support the activities of Congo Reform Association to which he was engaged. A year later, when Casement visited Conrad in his house in Pent Farm, near Sandgate, they were again on excellent terms.
But unlike Casement, whose campaign for human rights in colonized territories made him a household (and for some, notorious) name throughout England, Conrad had little interest in becoming an overtly political figure. “I would help him but it is not in me,” he wrote following Casement’s invitation for his political engagement in the Congo cause. “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories and not even up to that miserable game.” Casement, who read Heart of Darkness with interest and admiration, still pressed for his support and was admitted to use a quote from one of Conrad’s letters where he said: “It is an extraordinary thing that the conscience of Europe which seventy years ago has put down the slave trade on humanitarian grounds tolerates the Congo State to day. It is as if the moral clock had been put back many hours.”
Eventually it was Casement’s later involvement in the Easter Rising, a failed attempt to end British rule in Ireland during the First World War, that led Conrad to change his position in relation to his beloved friend. With German support behind them, Irish Republicans expected to have the arms necessary to begin a revolt against the empire; Casement was among the mediators between the Republicans and their German allies. The German ship, Libau, which carried arms to Irish rebels, was captured by the British navy and was sunk. And days before the rising began, Casement was arrested on suspicion of high treason to the crown.
For Conrad this type of treachery was no laughing matter. His eldest son, Borys, was serving at the Front in northern France and Conrad thought it was the worst time imaginable to begin an upheaval in Britain, the country that had provided a safe home to him and his family. It was partly due to this feeling of outrage that in a letter written almost three decades after their first encounter, Conrad could describe Casement as a man “of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid, I mean that he was all emotion.” He could admire outright rebellion to power but plotting beneath the disguise of a member of the British consular service, was a different matter — it was hypocrisy.
In fact, Casement had already left his official post and had little sympathy for a violent upheaval that Conrad feared would take place. But the British crown had to make an example of the man and unlike Doyle, Conrad had little interest in getting to the truth of the matter. His distant, cold, and almost patronizing view of the imprisoned man (“no mind and all emotion”) shows Conrad, the great analyzer of the “treacherous” Jim, at his worst.
The Dream of the Celt is perhaps the polar opposite of Conrad’s description of its subject matter — a book of almost no emotion and all intelligence. From Vargas Llosa’s treatment, Casement and Conrad emerge as figures cut out from biographies and scholarly works. Reading this novel is an experience comparable to that of walking around wax figures of eminent Victorians in Madame Tussauds. Those characters certainly do look like Casement and Conrad, but lacking vitality, color, and authenticity, they strike the reader as being little more than wax figures.
The chief fault lies in Vargas Llosa’s failure to imagine Casement as a figure distinct from his representation in historical texts. One scene sees Conrad thanking Casement for his friendship; patting him on the shoulder, Conrad confesses that without Casement’s assistance he could never have written Heart of Darkness. But the gesture doesn’t seem genuine and reads more like a nod to the student of literature who is already informed about Conrad’s work and Casement’s influence on it.
As he waits for the outcome of the appeal, the ghostly image of Conrad haunts Casement time after time in his prison cell: “As he lay on the cot on his back, his eyes closed, Joseph Conrad came to mind again. Would he have felt better if the former sailor had signed the petition?” In fact, Casement’s obsession with Conrad brings to mind Vargas Llosa’s own involvement in human rights campaigns which, for some critics who shared Conrad’s suspicion against political engagements, were seen as activities that distracted the author from writing good novels.
His interest in Casement’s relationship with Conrad therefore reminded me of Vargas Llosa’s political journalism and his non-fiction book, Making Waves, in which he collected his essays. Among them is “The Story of a Massacre,” which details Vargas Llosa’s efforts to solve the mystery behind one of the most notorious atrocities that took place in his country. In 1983, eight Peruvian journalists went to Uchuraccay, a rural village in Peru, in order to write about human rights abuses reported to take place in the area. They were attacked with axes, killed, and buried by the villagers. No one exactly knew what happened and, from the bits of information he could gather from newspaper accounts, Vargas Llosa could tell something was amiss. He then headed a commission to investigate the incident and, outside an official report, wrote this lengthy essay about his findings that was published in English in an issue of Granta that year. In “The Story of a Massacre,” he offered a picture of two civilizations in deep disaccord. According to his conclusion, peasants had mistook cameras for machine guns and saw the journalists as guerrillas who threatened their lives.
This type of political engagement and interest in documenting atrocities might partly explain Vargas Llosa’s admiration for Casement as a writer and historical figure. But apart from portraying Casement as “one of us”, The Dream of the Celt fails at re-imagining Casement as a fictional character with the same profundity one finds in Conrad’s protagonists, such as Jim, Marlow, and Kurtz.
In a commemorative poem entitled “Roger Casement,” the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats immortalized his fellow patriot with the following lines: “I say that Roger Casement / Did what he had to do. / He died upon the gallows, / But that is nothing new. / Afraid they might be beaten / Before the bench of Time, / They turned a trick by forgery / And blackened his good name. / A perjurer stood ready / To prove their forgery true; / They gave it out to all the world, / And that is something new.” Vargas Llosa’s fictional rendering of Casement’s life sadly falls short of producing a book that says something new about the great man. While Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which scarcely refers to names of historical figures it depicts, manages to reach the dark heart of Kurtz, its subject matter, The Dream of the Celt leaves its protagonist exactly as it finds it. A little understood and strange man who remains for us, as he did for his contemporaries, a mystery.
Surprising the oddsmakers, the 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. Unlike several recent winners, Vargas Llosa’s work is quite well-known in the States.
He was included in our round up this week of Latin American hopefuls, which noted that “He’s a journalist, playwright, columnist, critic, and politician (he ran for president of Peru in 1990), but most of all he’s a novelist.” That blend of political activism and literary merit often speaks to the Nobel judges, though Vargas Llosa decades ago broke with the leftist political movement in Latin America to take more of a moderate stance (this is a bit of a departure for the Nobel judges who have frequently preferred to honor writers who are vocally far to the left of center). He’s also very much a member of the “Latin American Boom” era, which saw other writers from the region like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortázar rise to international prominence in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vargas Llosa has penned a few dozen books. Among the most well-known, particularly to American readers, are Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The Feast of the Goat, The Bad Girl (which Gregory Rodriguez called in these pages “a fun and ultimately redemptive story of obsession, made me squirm for hours.”), The War of the End of the World, and Death in the Andes. His early novel The Green House won him his first major prizes and put him on the literary map.
The aforementioned piece by our contributor Jesse Tangen-Mills includes The Time of the Hero as a good starting point and non-fiction Letters to a Young Novelist alongside The War of the End of the World as other favorites.
Gregory Rodriguez, author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America, is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.Maybe it’s my age, but after years of reading nothing but serious history, I’m suddenly hungry again for fiction and poetry. It’s been good for my head and my heart.There’s no rhyme or reason to my short list of favorite books of the year, really. I mostly picked them up in advance of long airplane rides. Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl, a fun and ultimately redemptive story of obsession, made me squirm for hours. So did Philip Roth’s excruciating The Dying Animal, another story about (middle-aged) obsession. Wait, maybe there is a thread!Thank goodness I bumped into Lloyd Jones’ lovely and romantic Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance. Then there was Philip Schultz’s Failure, a brilliantly compassionate collection of poems that I savored for weeks. So smitten was I by Schultz’s simple, direct, accessible, yet profoundly moving poems, that I’ve taken to reading contemporary poetry daily – Edward Hirsch, Stephen Dunn, Ted Kooser. For so long I read with a purpose, to learn more or become an expert about this or that. In 2008 I rediscovered the joys of reading randomly.More from A Year in Reading 2008