The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa - review

New Statesman
The funeral of Roger Casement, 1916 (Photo: McMahon/Getty Images)

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.