I prefer historical fiction to biography. An individual seldom lives up to the mythology arises around celebrity. I didn’t enjoy reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descent into alcoholism, Edna St. Vincent Millay losing her identity in what some of her friends seem to have felt was an abusive marriage or Hemingway’s general pettiness. Or worse, find out that in between those moments of brilliance (as in the case of P.D. Wodehouse, for example) the person I admired led a life that was otherwise only remarkable for its mundanity. Yes, yes, I know – these expectations are unrealistic. No one can reside on a pedestal. But still, I prefer my heroes to remain heroic… Or at the very least to possess the dark glamor of an anti-hero.
Perhaps the most intriguing facet of Roger Casement is that his supposed shortcomings, his blackened reputation, have for a long time overshadowed the good he did. Here is a man spent his life as a passionate human rights activist. Casement worked tirelessly and recklessly to bring to the public’s attention the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo. Later, he would travel to Peru to confirm rumors of similar mistreatment and enslavement of the Putumayo Indians by the Peruvian Amazon Company. These atrocities were committed against two sets of indigenous peoples – in countries located 11,329.6 kilometers apart – for the same reason. To fulfill the international demand for rubber. For his work Casement would receive both induction into The Order of Michael & Saint George and a knighthood.
It was after his return from Peru that Casement’s Irish Nationalism – an interest which had been developing over several years – moved towards radicalism. He aligned himself with those who believed that “home rule”, the possibility of which was dangled before the Irish by the British Parliament like a carrot-on-a-stick, was not the answer. He was convinced that only true way to gain Ireland’s independence was through an armed uprising. But he also understood that Ireland would need a powerful ally if such an uprising was to succeed. So, in the midst of WWI he traveled to Berlin and attempted to forge an alliance between Germany and Ireland. He failed. And this failure resulted in his imprisonment and execution as a traitor.
The Dream of the Celt is Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel after winning the Nobel Prize in 2010. It is remarkable for the compassion and humanity with which Llosa describes the life and death of Robert Casement. He presents a complicated man who leaves the reader with mixed feelings. Llosa’s Casement is a crusader – a zealot. Whose tunnel vision in the name of a cause – Irish Nationalism – is a combination of pragmatism and naivety which left me squirming. Pragmatic, in his attempts to seek an Irish alliance with the Kaiser’s Germany. Naive because of his inability to anticipate the consequences of this act. Many of his friends turned their backs on him (some who had sons fighting in the British army) when news of his trip to Berlin and the reasons for it became public. As did the Irish soldiers he attempted to recruit from the German POW camps.
And then there were The Black Diaries – Casement’s private journals which were used by the British government to turn what little favorable public opinion that remained against him and ensure that clemency would be denied. These journals, which contained lurid descriptions of sexual encounters, are now widely accepted as having been written by Casement (though there remains some disagreement as to where the line between fact and fantasy blurred). They revealed Casement’s homosexuality to the world and destroyed what remained of his reputation. Llosa deals with this in an Epilogue, which I recommend reading (even if you are not usually a reader of Forwards and Epilogues).
It took a long time for him [Robert Casement] to be admitted to the pantheon of the heroes of Irish independence. The secretive campaign launched by British Intelligence to slander him, using fragments of his secret diaries, was successful. It hasn’t completely dissipated even now: a gloomy aureole of homosexuality and pedophilia surrounded his image throughout all the twentieth century. His figure discomfited his country because Ireland, until not many years ago, officially maintained an extremely harsh morality in which the mere suspicion of being a “sexual deviant” sank a person into ignominy and expelled him from public consideration…
With the revolution in customs, principally in the area of sexuality, in Ireland, the name of Casement gradually, though always with reluctance and prudery, began to clear a path as being accepted for what he was: one of the great anticolonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland. Slowly his compatriots became resigned to accepting that a hero and martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodó wrote, “is many men,” which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality.
The Dream of the Celt is not a biography. Llosa is not attempting to uncover the facts or even rehabilitate Casement’s reputation. His goal is to present a rounded portrait of a man, and in that man to describe an Everyman. Llosa is tackling the themes that the important authors will always return to: memory, regret, life, death, human connection, a person’s capacity for greatness and the inevitable failures that come in attempting to reach it.
A quick note on the English translation, by the legendary Edith Grossman, which has just won the International Latino Book Award for Best Fiction Translation. It’s gorgeous. The prose flows so easily that it’s difficult to believe that English isn’t the language of origin. Elegant without being self-conscious: this is Grossman’s signature. She has the knack for understatement, as in the following passage (which remained with me after I finished The Dream of the Celt). This is immediately after Casement learns that his private journals have been published and his secret revealed.
With an almost imperceptible movement of this head, the prisoner refused. He turned immediately afterward, facing the door of the visitor’s room. With his chubby face the sheriff signaled the guard, who unbolted the door and opened it. The return to his cell was interminable. During his passage down the long hall with the rocklike walls of blackened red brick, he had the feeling that at any moment he might trip and fall facedown on those damp stones and not get up again. When he reached the metal door of his cell, he remembered: on the day they brought him to Pentonville Prison, the sheriff had told him that, without exception, all the prisoners who occupied this cell had ended up on the gallows.
This wasn’t my first attempt at reading Mario Vargas Llosa, but The Dream of the Celt is the first novel of his I’ve managed to finish. This is largely due to Edith Grossman’s wonderful translation. If you’ve ever wondered how important the translator truly is to the success of a novel, I recommend picking up a few books by the same author, but translated by different translators. The differences can be shocking. Grossman lives up to her reputation (the “legendary” wasn’t a joke). She’s translated five other works by Llosa – as well as the works of other important Spanish authors, including Gabriel García Márquez.
Publisher: Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN: 978 1250 03332 1