Mario Vargas Llosa / The Dream of the Celt / Review
The Dream of the Celt
by Mario Vargas Llosa: review
Mario Vargas Llosa's 'The Dream of the Celt'
is a passionate reimagining of a maligned anti-Imperialist
By Ian Thomson
7:00AM BST 31 May 2012
"Exterminate all the brutes!” exclaims the European trader, Mr Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Conrad set his story in the ivory-rich Congo Free State, created in 1885 by King Leopold II of Belgium. In the name of elephant tusks and rubber exportation, African land was forcibly cleared and the Congolese herded into swamps and flogged.
The killings provoked an international outcry. Among those who vigorously denounced them was the Irish-born diplomat Roger Casement, who served as British consul to the African colony. Tirelessly, Casement gathered data on the atrocities and arraigned an army of Kurtz-like businessmen on charges of genocide. To his horror, Belgian militia routinely cut the hands off “lazy” slaves and bagged them as hunting trophies. (A sliced-off penis was proof that a Congolese had been killed.) It was thanks largely to Casement’s efforts that the killings eventually ceased.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-fictionalised account of Casement’s life portrays a heroic, if ultimately tragic champion of oppressed peoples. In 1916, in spite of a petition for clemency signed by, among others, George Bernard Shaw, Casement was hanged in London for high treason. With German help, he had plotted to restore Irish independence and overthrow Ireland’s colonial administration.
The novel opens in Pentonville Prison on the eve of the hanging. Dublin is reeling from the failed 1916 Easter Rising, while Casement has been caught on Irish soil after landing from a German U-boat. Vargas Llosa recreates Casement’s Congo days and subsequent diplomatic posting to Brazil, where he similarly denounced the cruelty of rubber barons.
While the novel is often absorbing, its shifts in chronology are at times laboured, and the dialogue correspondingly creaky (“Branded like animals? Can that really be true?”). The subject of Casement’s homosexuality is delicately handled, however, as Vargas Llosa seeks to cast doubt on the authenticity of the so-called “Black Diaries”, in which Casement supposedly chronicled his furtive gay encounters. Even today an air of disapproval hangs over Sir Roger Casement; this passionate if occasionally patchy novel will help to rehabilitate a maligned man.