The Dream of the Celt
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 358 pp., $27)
PERHAPS, once a man’s bones have been hauled from his grave, he will forever be unquiet. In David Rudkin’s play Cries from Casement as His Bones are Brought to Dublin, a Catholic cardinal admonishes the long-dead Roger Casement as his bones are brought to Dublin: “Be a good patriot, shut your mouth. Lie down.” But the Irish nationalist martyr and international pioneer of human rights will not lie easy in his grave. Mario Vargas Llosa’s deeply flawed but often fascinating novel is but the latest in a long line of literal and figurative disinterments.
The literal one happened in February 1965, when Casement’s long bones were dug up from an unmarked grave in Pentonville prison in London, where he had been hanged for high treason in August 1916, and flown to Dublin. The return of the remains followed a long campaign by the Irish government, which was preparing to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the armed rising in Dublin in 1916 that is the founding myth of the Irish state. For the British, Casement’s remains had a radioactive half-life. His own stated desire was to be buried in County Antrim, where his father’s family had its roots. But Antrim is part of British-controlled Northern Ireland, and the government feared that a reburial there could provoke Catholic celebrations and Protestant reactions. The compromise was that Casement would be reinterred instead alongside other heroes of Irish nationalism in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.
The bones were received like religious relics being brought to a medieval city. They lay in state for five days in a Catholic church. As The Irish Times reported, “People in small groups, mostly women, children and older men, passed quietly through the church, kneeling for some minutes to pray.” Children were given a day off school and government workers were allowed to leave work to attend the funeral procession.
These public rituals were intended to fix Casement’s identity once and for all. The ceremonies were ostentatiously Catholic and explicitly defined Casement as a martyr. The president, Éamon de Valera, himself the leading survivor of the uprising of 1916, welcomed the returning hero “amongst his own people,” the Catholic Irish: “For them he died and as long as this nation exists and Irish men live, his sacrifice will be recalled and his memory revered.”
This aura of religious reverence sought to freeze one of the most protean public figures of his age in the fixed posture of the pious Catholic. Casement had been born into minor Irish landed gentry, the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, but he was raised as a Protestant. Shortly after he was hanged, however, the Catholic press published an account of his last days by the prison chaplain at Pentonville. It painted the great rebel as a humble and obedient servant of the Pope, allegedly claiming that there was no real choice “between the Catholic church and religious anarchy, between the infallibility of the Pope and religious chaos.” According to the chaplain, Casement told him that he regretted his impending death only because he would not now have time “to show what a loyal son of the Catholic church he was.” This is one version of Casement: Saint Roger the martyr. It is no more fictional than any of the others.
Roger Casement threw himself into militant Irish nationalism in 1913, when he was nearly 50, after a spectacular career in the British consular service. After the outbreak of World War I, Casement tried, with little success, to recruit Irish prisoners in Germany to fight for the liberation of Ireland from British rule. In 1916, he was taken on a German U-boat to County Kerry, accompanying a large shipment of arms from the Germans, intended for the rebels. Like everything else in this part of his career, the plan failed: the arms ship was scuppered, and Casement was captured, taken to London, tried, and hanged. But this failure did not exclude him from the status of national hero—on the contrary, it was part of the broader narrative of 1916, the glorious failure from which the Irish revolution was born.
But another Casement existed before this Catholic nationalist martyr, a figure admired and honored by the same British establishment that hanged him. Opening his case against Casement at his trial, the prosecutor, Lord Birkenhead, felt the need to underline the shocking nature of the defendant’s treason, the suddenness of a transformation that could be explained only by pure malice: “Casement, blinded by his hatred to this country, as malignant in quality as it was sudden in origin, has played a desperate hazard.” Only a fit of malignant irrationality could explain the transformation of Sir Roger Casement, commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and knight of the British empire, into the traitor who conspired with Germany to foment rebellion in Ireland.
THE CASEMENT who had been so widely admired in Britain started his public career in 1884 as an employee of the African International Association, a front for the rapacity of its chairman, Leopold II of Belgium and his mission to “civilize” the Congo. The young Casement joined an expedition to survey the region, ostensibly in order to improve communications for the benefit of the native population. He worked as a lay missionary and oversaw the construction of a railroad before switching to the British Colonial Service in Nigeria and later in Portuguese West Africa.
In 1903, he became British consul in Boma, the seat of Leopold’s administration of his vast Congo fiefdom. It was here that Casement began the work that made him famous: an anguishing report on the enslavement, mutilation, and torture of native Africans on Leopold’s rubber plantations. Casement made the Congo infamous. In the Cyclops chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, set in the year that Casement’s report was published, J.J. O’Molloy remarks of British traders that “if they’re any worse than those Belgians in the Congo Free State they must be bad. Did you read that report by a man what’s this his name is?—Casement, says the citizen, he’s an Irishman. Yes, that’s the man, says J.J. Raping the women and girls and flogging the women on the belly to squeeze all the red rubber they can out of them.”
Casement later wrote that his journey into the upper reaches of the Congo was also a kind of homecoming to his own Irishness. He had gone to Africa a convinced liberal imperialist: “British rule was to be extended at all costs, because it was the best for everyone under the sun.” The Boer War had given him second thoughts, but it was “finally when up in those lonely Congo forests where I found Leopold I found also myself, the incorrigible Irishman.”
In 1910, after his appointment as British consul-general in Rio, Casement embarked on another trip upriver into the heart of depravity. He went to the Putumayo region of the Peruvian Amazon and compiled an even more devastating report on atrocities by a British-registered rubber company against indigenous peoples. The report, published as an official government document in 1912, is a brilliant piece of journalism, weaving together a detailed account of the workings of the rubber trade with first-person statements from victims and perpetrators of atrocities. Never before had distant colonial subjects been given such personal voices in an official document. The semi-official London Times proclaimed that Casement “has deserved well of his countrymen and of mankind.” A long sermon was preached at Westminster Abbey, praising Casement for exposing the “most infamous oppression that has ever served the interest of cupidity or stained the record of despotism.”
This second Casement has a good claim to be the father of twentieth-century human rights investigations, a one-man precursor of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But there is a third Roger Casement. His Putumayo report was based largely on a detailed diary he kept during his trip; but there was a second diary of the same trip, the so-called Black Diary.
The formal, punctilious style of the first diary becomes, in this shadow record, a staccato telegramese: “Lovely, young—18 & glorious. Biggest since Lisbon July 1904 & as big. Perfectly huge.... Breathed & quick enormous push. Loved mightily. To Hilt Deep.” For December 2, for example, the first diary records Casement’s thoughts on the lack of probity of public officials in Iquitos, but the second has sketchy encounters with “Julio” (“enormous limbs and it stiff on right side”), the sight of “some really stiff ones today.... Two Huge erections,” and a pining after a “lovely type in pink shirt & blue trousers & green hat.”
Those are the diaries that killed Casement. While plotting in Germany in 1914, he sent word to his lawyer in Belfast to “conceal everything belonging to me.” After his execution, the lawyer opened a trunk Casement had left in his keeping and, shocked at the explicit homosexual content of the diaries and letters it contained, burned everything. But the 1910 diary was found in his London lodgings.
British intelligence had known for some time that Casement was gay: Casement’s manservant and lover, Adler Christensen, became a British informant in 1914. But the existence of evidence in Casement’s own hand allowed the state to counter campaigns for clemency. There was a good chance that such campaigns might succeed: Britain was deeply sensitive to public and political opinion in America, which had not yet joined the war. (De Valera’s death sentence was commuted because he happened to have been born in New York.) A week before his execution, the United States Senate passed a motion calling for clemency for Casement. But President Wilson declined to support the call: like many of Casement’s British and international admirers, he had been quietly shown extracts from the diaries or informed of their contents. The British even went so far as to commission a post-mortem examination of Casement’s body, which “found unmistakable evidence of the practices to which it was alleged the prisoner in question had been addicted.”
THE EXISTENCE of this third, and private, Casement undermined his two public selves. His prosecutor, Lord Birkenhead, showed the diaries to counsel for the defense, apparently with the suggestion that they would form the basis for a plea of “guilty but insane.” The defense seems to have concluded that it would be better for their client to hang than to be exposed as an active homosexual. But the idea that Casement’s incoherent persona could be understood only as that of a madman had a strong appeal. One of Casement’s supporters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had petitioned for a reprieve on the basis that his dangerous journeys and disturbing encounters with evil had left him in an “abnormal physical and mental state.”
For the Catholic nationalists who sanctified his memory, the diaries were of course a hideous embarrassment. Rather deliciously, just seven months before the return of the body to Dublin, The Irish Times reported that “Mr Montgomery Hyde’s book on Roger Casement’s trial has been banned under the Censorship of Publications Act.... The book has been on sale in Dublin during the past few weeks. It contains some extracts from the ‘black diaries.’ ... The disputed diaries present Casement as a homosexual, and the reason for the banning by the censor is that the book is ‘indecent or obscene.’” This must surely be the only known example of a democratic state declaring the words of one of its official heroes insufferably obscene.
The only way to deal with this difficulty was to believe that the Black Diaries were dastardly forgeries, concocted by British intelligence specifically to stop the campaign for a reprieve. The idea is not inherently implausible, but it has little basis. There is no doubt that Casement was gay, and scientific analysis of the diaries has found no evidence of any interpolations or alterations. And the revulsion that the diaries inspired in 1916 has been replaced in our time by another kind of adulation: Casement as gay icon. Where once it might be said of him that he was heroic in spite of his sexuality, now he is more likely to be seen as heroic because of his sexuality.
Yet the idea of forgery adds another twist to the elusiveness of Casement’s persona. Catholic martyr, champion of the oppressed, traitor, sex maniac, madman, queer hero—so many narratives spin around Casement that none of them ever seems entirely true. It seems right, then, that writing and writers hover always around Casement. There is the putative forger spinning his deadly “fictions.” There is Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness laid the imaginative ground for Casement’s Congo report. The two men knew each other in the Congo in 1890; Conrad provided Casement with an open letter in 1903, testifying to the veracity and importance of his report. There is Joyce, who inserted Casement into Ulysses. There is Yeats, who adopted Casement as one of his personal heroes, demanding in 1937 that the English poet Alfred Noyes, who had helped spread reports of Casement’s homosexuality in 1916, should “Come from the forger and his desk,/Desert the perjurer’s side.” There is even a character in an Agatha Christie story—“N or M?”—who laments that her father was shot for following Casement: “he worked himself up with those other Irishmen. Why couldn’t he just stay at home quietly and mind his own business?”
Above all, there is Casement himself. The great Irish writer Frank O’Connor wrote of him that “the man was a maniac for scribbling.” Casement’s biographer Roger Sawyer noted his “compulsion” to write, an urge that seems to have been at least as strong as his sexual desires: “he was capable of writing no fewer than three versions of the same day’s events, working at his largely self-imposed task long into the night, and into the early hours of the following day.”
COMPETING NARRATIVES, multiple selves, friction between public image and private desires, a personality constructed through texts: Casement is the perfect postmodern subject. But Mario Vargas Llosa is not a postmodernist. He is arguably the greatest living exponent—in books such as The War of the End of the World, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,and The Feast of the Goat—of the historical and political novel. In Vargas Llosa’s best works, history has urgency, clarity, and a tragic intensity. Alas, none of those qualities are evident in The Dream of the Celt. Casement’s slipperiness defies even Vargas Llosa’s great capacity to make sense of violent histories by imposing on their confusion the order of fictional narrative.
There are, crudely, two ways to handle Casement’s contrary complexity in fiction. One is to embrace the shifting, protean nature of his persona, to revel in the possibilities it offers for invention, irony, and multiplicity. The other is to find a new unifying grand narrative, some broad governing myth, which will resolve all the contradictions in an aesthetic synthesis. Vargas Llosa manages to do neither of these things. He is too heavily weighed down by biographical research to escape into the pleasures of invention, and he is too uneasy with Casement’s sexuality to integrate it into a unified persona in which it functions convincingly as an aspect of his political life.
Consider an important early incident in Casement’s career in Africa. In the Congo, he witnessed a young native man being “so cruelly flogged” at the behest of the Belgian officer (later the Belgian minister for finance), Emile Francqui that “he was literally cut to pieces.” Casement records that “I had to have [him] carried in my own hammock for over fifty miles when taking him to Boma to the State Doctor to have his wounds dressed and in order that I might lodge a complaint on his behalf.... I was laughed at for my pains.”
This is an important moment in the emergence of Casement’s moral revulsion against the operation of imperialism. It is especially interesting because that revulsion is a visceral response to an assault on a male body being “literally cut to pieces.” Casement’s response in carrying the man fifty miles in his hammock makes him the object of ridicule—he has broken not just the rules of imperial power relations but also the codes of nineteenth-century manliness. It would be silly and reductive to see this incident as merely an expression of Casement’s sexuality. Equally, however, it ought to attract the novelist’s imaginative sympathy as a moment in which Casement’s love of the male body and willingness to be “unmanly” fuses with his horror at cruelty and injustice.
What does Vargas Llosa do with this moment? He makes Casement macho and manly. He is not laughed at. His confrontation with Francqui is like something from a Western: “Before the lieutenant could take out his weapon, he had him by the back of the neck and at the same time seized the revolver he had just grasped. Lieutenant Francqui tried to loosen the fingers at the nape of his neck. His eyes bulged like a toad’s.” Vargas Llosa’s Casement establishes his heroic status in the approved male way—by physical force. Surely this is less interesting in itself than his impulsive care for the beaten man and his willingness to endure humiliation. But it also exemplifies Vargas Llosa’s inability to integrate his hero’s sexuality into his narrative.
On the subject of the Black Diaries, Vargas Llosa hedges his bets. For most of the book, Casement’s homosexuality is dreamy and fantastical, in keeping with the author’s view, expressed in an epilogue, “that Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.” This is certainly a tenable view—or it would be if it were held consistently. Late in the novel, however, Vargas Llosa comes up with an entirely different view of Casement’s sexual behavior: that he was in fact promiscuous, but only with men he paid to have sex. He has “many lovers for a price—dozens, perhaps hundreds—and not a single loving relationship. Pure sex, hurried and animal.”
There is a deep unease at work here. Vargas Llosa is prepared to have Casement only fantasizing about sex in his diaries. He is also prepared to have him, somewhat paradoxically, take hundreds of lovers—but only if the sex is both commercial and animal. In both cases, the effect is to cordon off Casement’s sexuality from his political and public actions—he didn’t really have sex, and if he did it didn’t matter. It was “animal”—not part of the important thing about Casement, which was his humanity. This unease and indecision undermine any effort on Vargas Llosa’s part to create a new, overarching narrative that integrates Casement’s disparate selves.
WITHOUT SUCH a narrative, his writing lacks its usual combination of energy and elegance. There are redundancies. In the first paragraph, we learn that Casement’s jailer “contemplated [him] with a dislike he had never tried to hide.” A little later, we have the same jailer “looking at him with contempt.” Casement’s Norwegian lover is the “Scandinavian Lucifer” on one page, the “Scandinavian Satan” on the next. Casement’s breach with his friend Herbert Ward is recycled in the narrative for no apparent reason.
Vargas Llosa also seems unable either to master or to escape from his historical sources. On the one hand, the detail of the Irish revolutionary politics into which Casement throws himself is fuzzy. “Northern Ireland” is thought to exist in 1879, but it was founded in 1920. Bernard Shaw is called “this man who did not believe in anything”—a bizarre description of a man who adopted as many causes as he had hairs in his prodigious beard.
None of this would matter if the writing transformed history into living fiction, but too often The Dream of the Celt reads like straight biography. Minor characters come with labels cut from biographical dictionaries: “Swift McNeill, the veteran parliamentarian for South Donegal.” Exposition is placed within quotation marks as if this alone makes it work as dialogue: “It seems the shootings have stopped. Public opinion, not only there but in England too, has been very critical of the summary executions.” Sentences trudge through the mire of unprocessed research: “Both had been harsh critics of the abuses and crimes of colonialism, and when Roger became a public figure and the target of attacks for his Report on the Congo, Herbert and Sarita, his wife, living in Paris, where he had become an acclaimed sculptor who, for the most part, made castings in bronze, inspired by Africa, were his most enthusiastic defenders.” The relief of getting to the end of all those subordinate clauses is scant compensation for the loss of style.
There are, of course, strongly evocative and absorbing chapters. While most of the Irish material and the sequences of Casement in prison that frame and punctuate the novel remain inert, the African and Peruvian episodes are well told. Vargas Llosa seldom lingers on moments or images as we might expect a great novelist to do, but he does sustain the tension implicit in Casement’s voyages into the abyss of inhumanity. Whether he does so in a way that brings some special fictional qualities to bear is another matter. Jordan Goodman’s nonfiction account of the Putumayo investigation, The Devil and Mr. Casement, is more gripping than Vargas Llosa’s novelistic portrayal of it. The hope that a novel might bring something else to this extraordinary material, some inner truth or aesthetic transformation, is not here fulfilled.
The real fascination of The Dream of the Celt lies not so much in its vision of Casement as in what it tells us about Vargas Llosa himself. The book is an attempt to do something very interesting and very difficult: to present an idea of public heroism that can withstand irony and cynicism. Early in the novel, Casement’s friend Alice Stopford Green tells him, about Joseph Conrad, that “one can be a great writer and a coward in political matters.” Vargas Llosa himself has tried, in a public career that culminated in a run for the presidency of Peru, to be a great writer who is not a political coward. In Casement, he seems to be testing again the idea of what political courage might be. In the elusive Irishman’s instinctive hatred of cruelty, he finds something beyond the contingencies of everyday politics, “an example of devotion, of love, of sacrifice for a cause.”
There is also the sense that Vargas Llosa is seeking a meaning in history beyond the ironies and irrationalities that he has explored elsewhere. At one point Casement contemplates history itself: “The history learned at school? The one written by historians? A more or less idyllic fabrication, rational and coherent, about what had been in raw, harsh reality a chaotic and arbitrary jumble of plans, accidents, intrigues, fortuitous events, coincidences, multiple interests that had provoked changes, upheavals, advances, and retreats, always unexpected and surprising with respect to what was anticipated or experienced by protagonists.” The tension between the “idyllic fabrication” of a successful novel and the “chaotic and arbitrary jumble” of lived history is at the heart of The Dream of the Celt. Vargas Llosa fails to resolve it, but it is stirring to see him try.
A week after Casement’s bones were brought back to Ireland in 1965, a Belfast newspaper reported that his ghost had been seen in a pub in the city, where he ordered a meat pie and a Guinness, and then disappeared into the restroom, never to re-emerge. It was perhaps not quite the kind of visitation that Yeats had in mind when he wrote, in a feverish vision of the fall of empire, that “The ghost of Roger Casement/Is beating on the door.” Mario Vargas Llosa has been unable to open that door very far, but Roger Casement’s ghost will keep on knocking.
Fintan O’Toole is literary editor of The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg visiting lecturer in Irish letters at Princeton. This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.