Laura P.Z. Izarra
University of São Paulo

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El sueño del celta by Mario Vargas Llosa

Madrid: Alfaguara, 2010.

456 pp. ISBN: 978-84-204-0682-4

To write a novel based on history is like a chess game between truth and fiction. Mario Vargas Llosa has played this game in previous novels and he embarked on the writing of El sueño del celta fascinated by the multifaceted life of Roger Casement.  The writer said in an interview to Angus Mitchell (2009) that he wanted to write “a book in which fantasy and imagination are more important than the historical raw material” and he added, “what is important when you use history in writing a novel is to reach the level where all experiences are an expression of the human condition” (140).  Vargas Llosa tried to be true to his axiom.

The novel is based on Roger Casement’s travel writings, letters and reports which describe the horrors of the Congo (where he spent seven years from 1884) and the abuses against the Brazilian natives in the Amazon in 1910 and 1911. Casement’s narratives do not bear the legacy of imperial modes of vision and thought. Thus, Vargas Llosa uses this material not only to give accuracy to his story and construct a reliable protagonist who denounces the atrocities committed in the name of the three ‘C’s – Christian evangelisation, civilisation, and commerce – but also to unveil Casement’s inner transgressive thoughts against the system he works for and the process of self-critique he has undergone.

The book is constructed upon the hero’s doubts and uncertainties and its structure is divided into three parts – “El Congo”, “Amazonía” and “Irlanda” – ending with a disturbing epilogue.  An omniscient narrator retells Casement’s past but the chronological time of the narrative is tangentially cut by flashbacks and foreshadowings related to the psychological time of the protagonist who is in Pentonville Prison in London awaiting the result of his appeal against the death sentence for his involvement in smuggling German guns for the 1916 revolutionaries.

It starts with the door of Casement’s cell being opened in order to admit his lawyer’s assistant who has brought the news of the discovery of his intimate diaries and his guard’s (the Sheriff’s) resultant condemnation of his immorality. Every other chapter throughout the remainder of the novel focuses on him in prison, receiving visits from his cousin Gertrude Bannister, his friend the historian Alice Stopford Green or the Catholic priest Carey. Each of these intermissions reveals his thoughts in flashback and his disturbed state of mind in prison. However the narrative fails to convey the depth of inner emotions in the conflicted self of one who has lost the support of many of his friends and compatriots having previously enjoyed the admiration of the world for his defence of the oppressed. In fact, with the exception of chapter VII where the prisoner, with a trembling body, confessed to father Carey that he was very much afraid of death (128), Vargas Llosa suggests that Casement suffered no emotional turmoil with regard to his imminent execution as a traitor – he is portrayed as a remarkably calm, self-controlled and detached prisoner.

In “El Congo”, the writer explores the traveller’s curiosity during his first visit to Africa under Leopold II’s regime. He reproduces Casement’s discursive style as he surveys this virgin colony, which combines a strategic and aesthetic valuation of the landscape and the situation. He conveys the young man’s efforts to participate in the “chess game” of constructing an independent Congo state, with great idealism and the firm belief that there was a philanthropic design behind the brutal actions of Henry Morton Stanley, a living myth of the civilising mission. This is perfectly understandable in the context of the prevailing ideological advocacy of the benefits of modernisation. He describes Casement’s blind enthusiasm in 1884 when, at just twenty-one years of age, he was a member of Stanley’s expedition and later when he worked like a “peón en una partida de ajedrez” (“a pawn in a chess game” 49) under the command of Henry Shelton Stanford between 1886 and 1888. Vargas Llosa contrasts the stereotyped consumerism of the exotic and the idea of progress against the primitivism and exploitation that prevailed in the middle of the African jungle. Repetitions in a liturgical rhythm abound not only to underline the importance of the three ‘C’s, but also to highlight the atrocities committed in the name of a utopian project of civilisation.

This first part of the novel can be read from the perspective of the failure of the utopias of modernism. Vargas Llosa represents Casement’s thoughts through an interrogative narrative: “Does civilization bring progress and modernity through free commerce and evangelization? . . . How many of the colonizers – merchants, soldiers, government workers, adventurers – have some respect for the natives and consider them brothers, or at least humans?” (63). He gives voice to Casement’s discontent and justifies the pre-modern attitude of maintaining the “natural equilibrium” of subordination through  the voice of Theodore Horte, an old Officer of the British Navy and Baptist missionary: “Europe could do a lot to help the natives to abandon their primitivism” (63). The cause of Casement’s remorse was that he was responsible for negotiating with the natives: he gave them worthless souvenirs in exchange for their lands and labour; he “bought” their confidence telling them imperial “truths” about progress, and convinced them with his patience and soft voice. This attitude disturbed him a lot as he knew he was “jugando sucio” (“playing dirty”) with these tribes (61); he was helping to enslave them. In this way, with the missionary’s acceptance of the cruel situation as a minor evil (64), Vargas Llosa translates Casement’s lies into shared secrets.

The Peruvian writer explained in an interview that when the law of the strongest is installed, barbarism, savagery and cruelty reach vertiginous extremes (Clarín 04/11/2010). Thus, the collective utopia is replaced by the individual utopia of the “hunters”, an unstructured, privatised and individualised version of the old visions of a perfect society (Bauman 2007).  The imperial system was not looking for Thomas More’s “perfect world nowhere,” but for a “hunting” game, for chasing rather than catching. The effect of this utopian hunt is fictionalised when the protagonist returns to the Upper Congo and realises that only eighty-two inhabitants of Lukolela have survived out of 4,000. “Progress” under Leopold II has decimated the population. However, explanations and “half-lies” justify the facts: “they died due to diseases, typhus, the tse-tse fly” (82). The unspoken secret was the limitless desire for “red rubber”, powered by human cruelty.

Utopias became the awful caricatures of dreams rather than a dreamed Paradise in the world project of modernisation. This is emphasised in “Amazonía”, when Casement reaches the Amazon in 1910 accompanying the Commission of Inquiry charged with investigating the atrocities practised by the Peruvian Amazon Company against the indians of the Putumayo region due to the exploitation of the “red rubber”.  The celebratory image of Hy Brasil, associated with this country and exalted by Casement in a lecture in Belém do Pará (1907), was tainted by his later denunciations. Vargas Llosa’s narrative can be placed in the liminal space between literary journalism and fiction. Using the literary strategy of appropriation, he rewrites parts of The Amazon Journal, reassessing discourses of displacement, metaphors of movement and representations of cultural differences from a new rhetorical viewpoint. Crude realistic details are explored and even invented to represent Casement’s real and imaginary journeys.

Moreover, the writer reconstructs Casement’s physical and mental spaces based on contemporary documentary photographs. The description of children mutilated by Congo soldiery (89) corresponds to that still instant caught by the camera and subsequently published by the British press; the protagonist’s admiration for the indian body, with its implicit sexual desire, corresponds to pictures that were found among Casement’s documents (159). Another moment of real time is caught, emulsified and “fixed” by the reader’s perception when the author refers to “las correrías” (206) and the suffering of the enchained indians of the Putumayo (238). In this way Vargas Llosa builds bridges between the snapshots and passages from Casement’s diaries and his fictional narrative to enable the reader to see how the colonial utopias which started with veiled uncertainties and silenced truths while Casement was in the Congo, took the form of a dystopia in Casement’s mind when he was in the Amazon experiencing the effects of modernisation in the South American tropics. The novelist translates Casement’s internal inquiries and anticolonial reflections, creating what Michael Foucault (1988: 49-50) defines as an “aesthetics of existence,”  “a deliberate stylisation of daily life.”

There is a relationship of proximity in difference and similarity between Casement’s country, the countries he lived in, and the writer’s imagination. The relationship of proximity reveals the nationalist dilemma faced by Casement and the way it was fictionalised. Witnessing violence in foreign lands checkmated the coherence of his principles and enabled him to see the similarity between conditions in Ireland and in the Amazon. He approximates the situation of the indians (Boras, Huitotos, Andoques and Muinanes) to that of the Irish people, and he concludes that they were “all colonised, exploited and condemned to be thus forever if they continue relying on English laws, institutions and government to reach freedom” (239); the only way to regain freedom was through violence. His idealism made him turn to the past, to Irish tradition, in order to make his dream of an independent Ireland come true. To achieve his utopia he allied himself to the Germans, England’s enemy in the First World War, and he defended armed struggle against the English in order to achieve independence. The dream of the Celt was for justice, equality and happiness even when defeat was inevitable (272).

The awakening of a political consciousness is represented in “Irlanda”, where the implications of nationalism and Casement’s involvement with the revolutionary movement are raised. In his Nobel lecture, Vargas Llosa stated that he “despise(s) every form of nationalism, a provincial ideology – or rather, religion – that is short-sighted”,  and he made a distinction between nationalism and patriotism, “a salutary, generous feeling of love for the land where we were born”. The novel is not an apology for an ideal nationalism or patriotism. It is more based on the cultural nationalist movement and national symbols are referred in a very romantic way (359).

Mario Vargas Llosa crosses the frontiers of the genre and invades the fields of biography and history preserving the mystery of the patriot’s/traitor’s life through a doubly-bound construction/disruption of the protagonist’s cultural identities. The issue of sexuality is openly addressed in the epilogue. Vargas Llosa said to Mitchell that Casement “has never been dehumanised, he’s always at the level of humanity, even when he accomplished the most extraordinary achievements” (2009: 140).  However, the author’s strategy of a circular narrative that starts and ends with references to Casement’s homosexuality (always half-silenced in his reflections in prison) creates an ambiguous effect that culminates in the epilogue describing the post-mortem medical examination of Casement’s anus in order to prove the veracity of the Black Diaries. According to Barnwell “this final touch – historically true – epitomises human degradation, but it is the degradation of the British prison and its agent Mander” (2011: 299-304). But is this the only function that the epilogue exercises in the novel? It is the voice of the author, not the fictional narrator. What kind of “aesthetics of existence” is here created in relation to the fictional narrative itself? What alternative frames of historical reference are being posited? Vargas Llosa argues that, although Roger Casement wrote his diaries, he did not live entirely what he narrated. They were his fantasy and fiction of what he would have liked to experience (449).

El sueño del celta captures the conflicting layers of meaning and myth in the life of Roger Casement, his contradictions as traitor and patriot, and the tensions between his public and private life. It does not deny the cultural prejudices, neither those of Casement’s period and contemporaries nor those of our own time. Concepts of plurality and historical, geographical and psychological displacement are reconfigured in multi-dimensional images of re-presentations of the past to show that the totality of a human being can never be captured. In this way, the interrogations and shadows of Casement’s inner self remain in darkness and in the imaginations of Vargas Llosa and his reader.

Works Cited

Barnwell, David. “Mario Vargas Llosa. El sueño del celta”. Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Volume 7, Number 4 (November 2011): 299-304. The Missionary Experience in Ireland, Latin America and the Caribbean: Connections, Influences and Reflections. Ed. Cliona Murphy.

Bauman, Zygmunt. “A utopia na era da incerteza.” Tempos Líquidos. Trans. Carlos Alberto Medeiros. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2007. 99-115.

Foucault, Michel. “An Aesthetics of Existence.” Politics, Philosophy, Culture. Interviews and Other writings 1977-1984.Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. Trans. Alan Sheridan and others. New York & London: Routledge, 1988. 47-53.

Mitchell, Angus. “An interview with Mario Vargas Llosa.” Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 7, Number 2 (July 2009): 137-143. Literature, Art and Culture. Eds. Laura P.Z. Izarra and Patricia Novillo-Corvalán.  Accessed 15 December 2010.  Accessed 4 November 2010.