The Dream of the Celt: A Novel

  • Mario Vargas Llosa,m H, Historical translated by Edith Grossman
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 368 pp.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist turns his eye to the life of Irishman Roger Casement.

Reviewed by Alice V. Leaderman

The Celt of Mario Vargas Llosa’s new novel is Roger Casement (1864–1916), an Irishman who was knighted in 1911 for service to the British Empire and hanged for treason five years later. Casement’s life spanned the era of colonial rivalries in Africa and South America that eventually led to World War I. Vargas Llosa gives us a moral, spiritual, sexual and psychological portrait of a complicated man living in an age of conflict and intrigue.

In 1903 the British Foreign Office sent Roger, a British consul, on an arduous expedition up the Congo River to investigate charges of Belgian brutality against the native peoples. A few years later, he was given a similar assignment, this time concerning crimes against indigenous tribes by a British-Peruvian rubber company in Amazonia. In both cases Roger spent months traveling in the jungle, determined to gather evidence despite the toll on his physical and mental health. In his reports following each trip, he documented shocking atrocities. Their publication caused a sensation in London. After the first, Roger was decorated by the government; after the second he was knighted. He retired and devoted himself to the cause of Irish independence with such fervor that his nationalist associates dubbed him “the Celt.”

The book opens with Roger in prison awaiting a clemency decision and wanting a bath. We see that he is a man of dignity or ego — it is hard to tell which. The few hints of his past and future, coupled with the physical detail of the prison, capture our attention from the first pages.

Vargas Llosa shifts the scene, taking us from Roger’s childhood in Ulster to the eve of his departure for Africa at age 20. From then on, prison chapters alternate with chapters set in earlier periods. What are fragments of memory in the prison setting are elaborated in the Congo and Amazonia sections. The prison chapters show us an introspective man troubled by his imperfections; the Congo and Amazonia chapters are adventure stories. In the last section, “Ireland,” introspection and adventure come together.

The narration is from Roger’s point of view, but the story is told in an objective, impersonal voice. Readers are more distant from the protagonist than in the recent (and very different) biographical novels, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Colm Tóibín’s The Master. Vargas Llosa uses Roger’s first name throughout, but sometimes he steps farther away, referring to Roger as “the prisoner,” or “the consul.” Nevertheless, we do learn Roger’s feelings about most things, and through an accretion of detail Vargas Llosa builds a picture of a quiet but highly emotional man.

Readers may wish Vargas Llosa had described a few mundane passages in Roger’s life to give us a more personal understanding of him. We don’t learn, for example, how an undereducated former shipping clerk with an Irish accent and no political pull managed to become a consul. We don’t see Roger and the sculptor Herbert Ward becoming close friends. We don’t see the friendship develop between Roger and his intellectual surrogate mother, the Irish historian Alice Stopford Green.

Vargas Llosa focuses on Roger’s grand, and grandiose, dreams: his early enthusiasm for “civilizing” the natives, his exhausting efforts to produce reports strong enough to force reform of the treatment of native peoples, his immersion in the cause of Irish independence, and his willingness to travel to the heart of Britain’s enemy to seek German military support for a free Ireland.

Things come in twos in this book: There are two expeditions and two reports. There are two mother figures, Roger’s mother, Anne, and Alice Stopford Green. Roger is close to two women his age, his sister Nina and his cousin Gee (Gertrude). He has two close male friends, Ward and the journalist Edmund Morel, and two priest friends, Father Crotty in Germany and Father Carey in the prison. He admires two Irish leaders, Peter Pearse and Joseph Plunkett, each of whom is like him in some ways. Doubtless more instances could be found. These pairs, which are in a sort of dialogue with each other, serve to emphasize what is happening in Roger’s world and help bring out his character. They are a framework, part of the author’s plan for the story. They also create a subtle rhythm, as does the alternating of the prison and adventure chapters.

Vargas Llosa portrays Roger as tall and handsome, a man of few words, not unsociable but a loner, from youth awkward with women except those in maternal roles. Well into the Africa section we learn that he is homosexual. He gratifies his desires by paying youths in Africa and in South America, appreciating the freedom that does not exist in Britain, but still feeling guilty — not surprising considering the times in which he lived. Roger’s erotic diary entries describe encounters that occurred as well as encounters only imagined by a lonely man. Government release of the diaries probably contributed to the denial of his clemency petition and thus his death.

Besides the few sexual scenes, Vargas Llosa salts the book with overt and subtle suggestions of Roger’s (and others’) homosexuality. He does not overplay this aspect, which is the source of a great deal of tension for Roger. Other sources of conflict and pain are Roger’s relationship to Christianity, his nostalgia for his Irish childhood, his wish for a real love relationship comparable to the Wards’ marriage, and oedipal love for his Catholic mother, who died when he was nine.

Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010. Readers will once again be captivated by his sure narrative style, his meticulous use of detail, his fascinating locations, and a protagonist twisted by history, dreams and his own psychological drives.

Alice V. Leaderman writes fiction, hikes, skis, gardens and volunteers with a group that promotes the use of native plants. She lives in Maryland with her husband.

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