The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.
As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.
Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.
His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently.
His sojourn in Africa had convinced Sir Roger that only an armed insurrection could help Ireland attain independence. While investigating the brutalities of the Peruvian Amazonian Company, he had already undergone the concluding transformation in his intellectual journey, reflecting thus:
We should not permit colonization to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazonian Indians. we must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automations.
The declaration of the Great War (later called the First World War) offered the possibility of an Irish-German alliance. Sir Roger Casement went to Germany to organize an Irish contingent from among the captured Irish soldiers and to procure arms for an Irish insurrection. He failed miserably in his attempt in getting the Irish prisoners to fight against the country they had been fighting for until recently. The arms that he procured too did not reach the Irish rebels.
Meanwhile, the Easter Uprising began without him (he had opposed it if there was no German support for the insurrection). Betrayed by his male partner, a Norwegian named Eivind Christensen, Sir Roger was arrested on setting foot in Ireland, imprisoned and awarded the death penalty after being denounced as a traitor. He appealed for clemency that was supported by George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others.
The clemency petition faced numerous challenges. Besides being a traitor, Sir Roger was now denounced as a homosexual, a crime as bad as the other one in the conservative British and the even more conservative Irish society of that time.
Sir Roger’s diaries that contained descriptions of his sexual encounters with young men–some actual but also many that were imaginary–led to his further isolation by the British press, and his plea for clemency was turned down. He was hanged on 3rd August 1916, buried in the Pentonville Prison. Much later, in 1965, his remains were repatriated to Ireland and he was given a state funeral.
As in his previous novel, The Bad Girl, Llosa has touched on a very contemporary issue- globalization and its promise of global prosperity. There is a parallel between the two situations when Roger reflects on what the earlier age of globalization in the early 19th century had done to the colonies:
Herbert was one of the few people to whom Roger confided his disenchantment with Stanley, Leopold II, and the idea that had brought him to Africa: that the Empire and colonization would open to Africans the way to modernization and progress. Herbert agreed completely with him, when they confirmed that the real reason for the presence of Europeans in Africa was not to help the Africans out of paganism and barbarism, but to exploit them with a greed that acknowledged no limits to abuse and cruelty.
It is this theme that is so strikingly similar to the current wave of globalization that rescues Llosa’s otherwise feeble novel. It is feeble because much of the novel reads like Sir Roger’s biography with a few flashes of some brilliant fiction writing in the beginning and towards the end. The descriptions of what goes on in Casement’s mind as he reflects on his life while waiting for a decision on his clemency plea, and then his death are brilliant and a reminder that despite his personal journey as a politician of the Right and his decline as a writer since The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, anything by the master writer still makes for compulsive reading.
Mario Vargas Llosa’s peak as a writer is long past. Yet, when he writes a new novel, it helps us remind not only how great a writer he has been but remains a very engaged writer who makes us think about the contemporary world.