Reader, consider the complexity of Sir Roger Casement. He was a key player in one of history’s first international human-rights campaigns and a friend and colleague of people like Joseph Conrad, Edmund Morel and Mark Twain, an accomplished diplomat and, at the end of his life, both a knight of the British realm and a convicted felon who went to the gallows for high treason
His notable achievements in the eyes of the British government were his searing reports on commercially inspired genocide in Africa and Peru. Both in the Congo and the Peruvian Putamayo, the primary tools for rubber extraction were the overseer’s rifle and whip, and Casement exposed these business-inspired horrors.
His crime, in the same British eyes, was to conspire with Germany during the First World War to secure military support for an independence uprising in Ireland. His outlaw sexuality exacerbated his treason, in the view of many. Casement’s notorious “black diaries” (which feature lovingly detailed, humid and heated accounts of gay sex with young Third World men), played a role in insuring he would not be granted the reduced sentence his previous services to the British Crown might otherwise have won.
Seized after his arrest in 1916 by British intelligence and circulated widely, the diaries probably sealed Casement’s fate. Some who shared Casement’s support for Irish independence have long maintained the diaries were forged by British agents to smear him, while gay-liberation activists have been eager to claim Casement, like his fellow Anglo-Irish contemporary Oscar Wilde, as a homosexual icon and martyr.
For several years now, the fans of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (among whom I number myself) have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his Casement novel, The Dream of the Celt. In many ways, the prodigiously talented and versatile Nobel Prize-winner seemed like the ideal author to produce a work of fiction equal to the contested and baffling facts of Casement’s life.
Vargas Llosa is one of the towering figures in world fiction in the 20th century, whose works include the nearly perfect The Story Teller, the comic Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and the fascinating political memoir, A Fish in the Water. In 2000, however, he published a long, deeply flawed novel about the assassination of Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo, The Feast of the Goat, which may have been the first sign of a talent in decline.
The Dream of the Celt opens in London’s Pentonville Prison, where Casement is waiting for execution, and delivers its tale in three flashback sections, The Congo, Amazonia and Ireland. Told in an oddly numb third-person narrative, this is a puzzlingly bland and boring book, despite its potentially exciting elements.
The combination of Vargas Llosa’s genius and the dramatic life of Roger Casement ought to have been a happy and productive one, complete with tropical adventure, human misery, brave truth-telling, hot sex and final tragedy. It is, instead, like The Feast of the Goat, a disappointment. Long on bloodless exposition and short on vitality and drama, The Dream of the Celt reflects extensive research on Varga Llosa’s part, but lacks the human complexity and excitement of the author’s earlier work, and far too often descends to the banal, fact-ridden level of a mediocre Wikipedia article. How are the mighty fallen!
There is a great book to be found in the Casement story, but Vargas Llosa has not written it. To date, the best accounts of this profoundly heroic and complex figure have been in his own diaries and Adam Hochschild’s magisterial King Leopold’s Ghost. But neither of these admirable works is a novel. We are left, in the wake of Vargas Llosa’s unsuccessful attempt, still waiting for a work of fiction equal to the stupendous wonders and mind-numbing horrors of Casement’s life.
Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver writer, critic and human-rights activist.