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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa - review

The Dream of the Celt

Mario Vargas Llosa

Faber & Faber, 416pp, £18.99

Mario Vargas Llosa likes to play with how, in Spanish, the word historia means both “history” and “story”. In his 1984 novel, Historia de Mayta (rendered less ambiguously in English, to the author’s dissatisfaction, as The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), a writer sets out to research the biography of an obscure Trotskyite who tried to emulate the Cuban revolutionaries by staging an uprising in the mountains of Peru.

The novel was based on a real incident in the late 1950s in which a doomed project launched by a handful of crazy idealists was put down within hours. Although Vargas Llosa says that his intentions were as much literary
as political, with the emergence of the ferocious Shining Path guerrillas, the novel was received in Peru as a warning against the temptation of violence. The author conceded that there was a moral: “Every ideology leads ultimately to fanaticism and fanaticism is fiction trying to impose itself on reality in the name of science.”

One would expect these themes to infuse Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, which is based on the life of Roger Casement, a Protestant Irishman knighted for his exposure of horrific abuses in the rubber plantations of the Congo and Peru who then became an Irish separatist and enlisted German support for the Easter Rising of 1916. Casement was hanged for treason after the British government derailed a campaign for clemency by circulating among his influential friends his alleged diaries, recording in detail his homosexual encounters in the tropics. Vargas Llosa is sympathetic to Casement as an almost-forgotten campaigner for human rights but is also drawn to the drama of his double life and the fictions by which he lived. On this plane, the novel captures well the physical strains he endured in the heat of the Congo and Peru but also “the startling moments of pleasure” his secret life brought and the anguish and fear that went with it.

The most vivid scenes in the book are set in the Congo or the Amazon: Casement’s encounters with members of King Leopold’s brutal militia and Peruvian officials in swampy Iquitos. Vargas Llosa skilfully evokes the torpor of nights under a starry sky, conversations in semi-darkness with the sounds of a distant thunderstorm and the raucous street life in the background and the consolation of oil lamps, a tin roof and a glass of brandy. In these scenes,
he imagines Casement’s voice as he confronts the abusers, a deadly, polite probing fuelled by restrained righteousness, a public display of courage and authority at odds with his private distress and longing.

But the rest of the novel rarely matches the animation of these scenes. Casement’s story is told through a series of flashbacks during his last days at Pentonville Prison that are too often weighed down by a punctilious, dutiful chronology that is redolent of the indiscriminate recording of a statesman’s memoir and only occasionally achieves the exciting imaginative engagement with a life that Vargas Llosa has managed in so many of his other novels.

This flatness is most noticeable when he writes about Casement’s relationship to Ireland and the Easter Rising, which is at once over-researched, too dependent on a direct recitation of already well-rehearsed events and yet not acute or fresh. The political background is sketched in, often in stilted dialogue, but the reader will still not get a sense of why some Irishmen were Unionists, or the differences between the constitutional nationalist John Redmond and the insurrectionist Patrick Pearse.

Here, Casement’s voice and the tension between his aspirations and political reality disappear. This lifelessness is all the more surprising since the themes of ideals and reality, poetry and politics, fiction and ideology have been so central to modern debates over the meaning of 1916. It might even have been better if the novel had wholly focused on Casement
in Peru, with his commitment to Irish separatism dealt with indirectly.

Reflecting on Mayta, Vargas Llosa argued that, as a novelist, “You do not have an obligation to be true and exact; the only obligation you have is to be persuasive.” Here, it is as if Vargas Llosa’s reverence for Casement’s biography, his obligation to the conventional details of the heroic life, has overwhelmed his obligation to make something new.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis