Friday, July 6, 2018

The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
originally published as El Sueño del Celta, 2010
translated by Edith Grossman
358 pp


"...he told himself that his life had been a permanent contradiction, a series of confusions and cruel complications, where by chance or because of his own clumsiness, the truth of his intentions was always obscured, distorted, turned into a lie." 
                                                    -- 208

I came to this book in a sort of roundabout way, after recently finishing Robin Furneaux's  The Amazon (1969).  Chapter eleven of that book examines  "The Putamayo Affair," which focuses on the Peruvian Amazon Company, the largest rubber enterprise on the Peruvian side of the border between Peru and Colombia.  I hadn't known about Casement's work in the Amazon, so I was glued to this chapter, and I wanted to know more.  After a bit of research linking Casement to the Putamayo, I came up with Dream of the Celt, a book I actually owned.  I was familiar with Casement and his work in the Congo having read Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is a book that in my opinion, everyone should read.  But I have to say that I was not as happy with Dream of the Celt as I think I might have been .     Let's put it this way:  I think it is absolutely outstanding that the author brought Casement's story into the public eye, but reading this book was beyond frustrating since the fictional narrative that could have emerged felt overwhelmed by what felt like a recitation  of the author's research findings.

from RTE

The Dream of the Celt begins in a cell at Pentonville Prison, where Casement is hoping that a request for clemency will come through and that he will escape the death penalty.  But the news isn't good -- evidently Scotland Yard has discovered Casement's diaries, "portions" of which have been "circulating everywhere," have been "the only topic of conversation in the city," and evidently might have some sort of damaging effect on his case.   While Casement continues to wait for news, and while his friends are doing whatever they can to help, we are taken back into his past, beginning with Africa.    It was there, as a very young and idealistic man, that he bought into the civilizing mission --  "the emancipation of Africans from backwardness, disease and ignorance," only to later go on as British consul  to gather evidence to detail the horrific atrocities against the natives in the Congo by those who  supported and oversaw King Leopold II's rubber trade, "the abuses committed here in the name of so-called civilization."  He meets and befriends writer Joseph Conrad, and inspires E.D. Morel to form the Congo Reform Association in 1904.  But it is also in Africa, as Casement reveals in a letter, that
"this journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her reality. In these jungles I've found not only the true face of Leopold II. I've also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman." 
It was his African experiences that caused him to question whether Ireland wasn't also a colony, "like the Congo," and which made him decide to devote himself to learning about and understanding the "history and culture of Ireland."

Later, Casement is called upon by the Foreign Secretary to investigate the truth of reports made by two Americans who had been in the Putamayo region (along the Peruvian/Colombian border)  who had collected  evidence of atrocities against the indigenous peoples there, once again in forced service to the rubber trade.  This time though, the company under scrutiny was registered in London, with three British directors, and when the Americans had their findings published in Truth magazine, the government couldn't just sweep things under the rug.  By 1910, Casement was on his way to South America.  [Anyone who is interested can read a brief history of the "Putamayo Atrocities" here, at the website of the Latin American Bureau.]    Here, he comes to another realization linking the oppressed peoples of the Putamayo to his Irish kinsmen:
"We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited, and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom.  They will never give it to us." 
The only way to freedom for the people of the Putamayo, he says, is for them to rise up in arms "against their masters;" for the Irish, it must be "an irresistible pressure" that "can only come from weapons."  To gain freedom, one must "fight to achieve it." 

Throughout the first two sections of this novel, it becomes apparent that his experiences in the Congo and in Amazon left Casement a conflicted man -- he served the British crown, but he knew that the only road to Ireland's freedom meant that he would have to turn against it.  Part three picks up in Ireland, after Casement's retirement from consular service where he brings with him his dream of a liberated Ireland.  As he says, it was time for him to "concern himself with other natives, the ones from Ireland."  It is just after the outbreak of World War I when he decides on a bold move that takes him to Germany, which eventually leads him to a major betrayal and to Pentonville Prison. 

The book is more than simply the question of Casement as hero or traitor, though, since Casement is portrayed as a man filled with contradictions and prone to self examination and even second guessing.  He does constant battle with his physical health, and in Germany was told that his mental health had become "destabilized" and would become undone without some rest.  He was also a man who had to keep his homosexuality hidden,  but made notes in his diary about his encounters.  In a big way, we can also see that the political and the personal are hard to separate in this man, for example, when at one point he notes that while Africa was a place of "enormous suffering," it was also
"a land of freedom, where human beings could be mistreated in wicked ways but could also express their passions, fantasies, desires, drives, and dreams -- without the whipping and judgment that Britain used to drown out pleasure." 
In the epilogue, the author explains that
"... a hero and a martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection, but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodo wrote, 'is many men,' which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality." 
 Controversy over the "black diaries" still exists, as does controversy over Casement himself, but I think that for me a major part of this book asks the question of what it is that we expect from people we view as heroes or champions for a cause, especially considering that the very people who supported him throughout his career as an advocate for human rights were dropping their support at the end. I understand the reluctance of his friends to support his actions as a traitor to the British during the war, but it was the diaries revealing his homosexuality that seemed to seal his fate, more so than his actual crime.  If only we had had less facts here and more (albeit fictional) insight from Casement himself here, or had we heard more from his friends and supporters,  this could have been a great book -- as it is, the novel becomes somewhat of a chore to read which is, as I said earlier, a shame.  However, I would certainly recommend it because it is most certainly well worth reading.

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