Reviewed by Ammara Khan
The Dream of the Celt is Vargas Llosa’s first novel to be translated into English since he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010. Roger Casement, the famous colonial-enthusiast who was awarded knighthood but later became an Irish nationalist and was hanged for his role in the Easter Rising, is the main character in this novel. Llosa, greatly admired for his literary genius but a controversy when it comes to his conservative political ideology, chose for his latest novel a figure as contradictory as himself. He writes in his epilogue, “a hero or martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness”.
The novel opens with Casement in Pentonville Prison after the Easter Rising hoping that his death sentence would be commuted. Through his visitor he finds out that Scotland Yard has discovered evidence of his homosexual behaviour from his “Black Diaries,” a fact that compromises the chances of his already doomed clemency.
The Dream of the Celt is divided into chapters alternating between Casement in prison reminiscing about his past and a more linear narrative starting from his childhood towards his life as a rebel.
Born to Irish parents, Casement is secretly baptised as Catholic by his mother who had apparently converted to Protestantism to marry his father. As a child he is greatly fascinated with his father’s stories of adventures along the remote frontiers of the Empire. The strict father who never shows his emotions is so heartbroken after his wife’s death that he loses his lucidity and dies when Casement is only 12.
Casement, along with his brother and sister, moves from Dublin to the countryside to live with relatives. Showing a naturalist’s interest in nature and solitude, he enjoys cross-country hikes and at the age of 15 becomes an apprentice in a shipping company. When he is 20, Casement goes to Africa where rubber, “the black gold avidly coveted,” is extracted. His task is to bring to light the truth behind the rumors of atrocities committed by the colonists. Casement soon realises that affairs in Africa are not as told in England.
“I wasn’t aware because I didn’t want to be aware,” he would later realise. He is told that the things that worry him are signs of weakness and that the white have to decide for the natives because “mentally they are closer to the crocodile or hippopotamus” than the civilised Europeans. Ironically enough, the symbol of colonisation for Casement is the chicote or the whip fashioned from the tough hide of hippopotamus. “If rubber was not consumed first, the Congolese would be the ones consumed by a system that was annihilating them by hundreds of thousands,” thinks Casement.
In Congo, he meets Joseph Conrad and they discuss the state of affairs in the new Congo Free State. Thirteen years later, in their second meeting in London, when Casement congratulates Conrad on his novel Heart of Darkness, he is told, “You should have appeared as co-author of that book”. Whereas Conrad’s Congo is a place so dark that it turns ‘civilised’ Europeans into ‘barbarians’, Casement’s Congo is corrupted by the greed and atrocities of the Europeans. It is there that Casement learns the naked truth of extreme cruelties committed in the name of civilisation.
When Casement returns to England he writes a report that highlights the injustices of the Empire and his report on the Belgian Congo and the one that he later writes about Peru were one of the first attempts at international justice and earned him knighthood.
However, his is an attempt to expose the atrocities committed in the name of civilisation, not the emancipation of the indigenous people. Despite his disillusionment with colonialism, Casement keeps advocating the ‘cause’ of civilising Africans as he finds a semblance of redemption in this theory behind colonialism.
Furthermore, his increasing doubts make him appreciate the values of liberal humanism. He writes to one of his friends, “In these jungles I’ve found not only the true face of Leopold II. I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irish man,” and he asks, “Wasn’t Ireland a colony too, like the Congo” and declares, “Like the Irishman I am, I hate the British Empire”.
Individualism cannot survive in such an oppressive atmosphere, resulting in Irish nationalist sentiments in Casement. What follows is Casement’s life as an Irish revolutionary in Germany and his failure to prevent the Easter Rising. He plots to get help from Germany for the freedom of Ireland.
Casement’s homosexuality is discussed only at the end of the novel and that too with supreme caution. Llosa believes that Casement’s diaries are not all truth, that “there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction”.
Individual helplessness against an oppressive reality as well as individual potential, the intersection between culture and politics, outcomes of excessive greed and the search for one true identity are some of the recurrent themes in The Dream of the Celt.
Stylistically speaking, the dialogue and narrative strategies are of modernist nature with a singular point of view and the usage of simple spatial shifts. This literary realism results in a natural account which is, at times, weighed down by the meticulous research.
When Casement discovers the same display of wounds and chains everywhere from Congo to Amazon he says, “The same old story. The never-ending story.” Ironically, Llosa describes how the reader feels about this novel in those two short sentences. It fails to grab the reader the way it should due to a lack of psychological depth and repeated accounts of violence, a result of strict adherence to the policy of “tell, don’t show”.
Reading more like a biography than a historical novel, The Dream of the Celt is not necessarily among Llosa’s strongest works. Perhaps its chief achievement is the reimagining of an extraordinarily complex man without hints of reverence or judgment.
The Dream of the Celt
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and Giroux