Book Review | The Dream of the Celt

Though it may be hard-going at times, Rose Lapira finds a lot to enjoy in Mario Vargas Llosa’s imaginative depiction of the embattled Irish revolutionary Roger Casement.

Peruvian Nobel Prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa.
Peruvian Nobel Prize winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa.

A quote by Jose Enrique Rodo, the Uruguayan essayist often regarded as Spanish America's greatest philosopher is the epigraph to The Dream of the Celt. It states: 'Each one of us, is successively, not one but many. And these successive personalities... tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts among themselves.'

Not surprisingly, Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa chose this quote when he came to write his latest novel The Dream of the Celt, which is a fictional biography of Roger Casement. The author has made it clear that while he carried out much detailed research on Casement, and the basic historical facts are there, yet this is a novel and not an accurate historical biography.

Roger Casement was born in Ireland in 1864, to a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In his 20s, he was appointed British Consul and travelled extensively in the Congo, where he was horrified at the brutal treatment of the natives by the rubber companies working for King Leopold II. His strongly-worded report earned him a reputation as a human rights campaigner at a time when this was unheard of.

Subsequently, he was sent to Amazonia to investigate the equally atrocious treatment of the natives there, and his report led to the closure of the Peruvian Amazon Company. His fame spread internationally. He was knighted for his services and was offered the post of ambassador to Brazil.

He declined the offer and instead turned all his energy and determination to free the Irish from English colonial rule. This was the time of the Great War and Casement went to Germany to get help to fight against the British.

This attempt failed miserably. He was arrested as soon as he returned to Ireland, imprisoned, and given the death sentence for treason. His appeal for clemency, though supported by, among others, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Canon Doyle, fell on deaf ears for his case was further blackened by the discovery of his private dairies, which revealed him to be a homosexual. He was hanged on August 3, 1916.

All this is recounted in great detail by Vargas Llosa as he describes what is running through Casement's mind while he is waiting for his execution in Pentonville Prison.  This is an epic novel and it is clear that the author has done thorough research on the subject. But it is the very amount of details which bog down the novel and prevent it from being a completely satisfying read. At times, especially in mid-section, the style becomes dense and dry.

Yet, Vargas Llosa succeeds brilliantly in capturing the enigmatic, complex and controversial character of Roger Casement. The title of the book is taken from a poem by Casement. He is portrayed as an adventurer - a dreamer who has tried throughout all his life to make possible what is impossible. He lives a life of contradictions, as a hero and a traitor. He is a great humanitarian, but also a naïve idealist and a fanatic nationalist. He is a tragic figure, who leads a vulnerable life as a homosexual with the frustration and fear of forbidden love at a time when this was a crime.

There is also controversy about his diaries: the so-called 'Black Diaries' which proved to be so damning for Casement. Though there are still those who believe that the diaries were forged, forensic tests have confirmed that the five diaries were genuine, and Mario Vargas Llosa is also of the opinion that the diaries were not faked, but he believes that the explicit descriptions of sexual episodes were written by Casement more as he lived them in his imagination than in real life. 

I suppose there will always be controversy about Casement and his life. He dreamt of a better world for the natives of the Congo and Amazonia, dreamt of Irish independence, and dreamt of love. He always acted in accord with his principles, whether serving the British Empire, or when it came to his love for an independent Ireland. This turned him into a traitor, for which he paid with his life.

Mario Vargas Llosa, as seen in his other novels, believes that literature should show nuances of history, and that nothing is totally clear or absolute.

Perhaps 'the ghost of Roger Casement is (still) beating at the door' as expressed by W.B. Yeats in one of his poems, and it is difficult to lay him down to rest. Much has been written about him, but Roger Casement will be remembered, above all else, as a great humanitarian who dedicated the best part of his life campaigning for the human rights of the downtrodden.