The ghost of Roger Casement is beating on the door. W B Yeats
This a difficult book to review, but not because it’s boring or poorly written – I read it comparatively quickly with great interest – but because it is more like a biography than a novel and is not quite satisfactory as either. In part, this may be a characteristic of the Latin American novel, or the fault of the translator, but only in part.
At various points the author seems to forget he is writing a story, dramatising events, and includes large chunks of undigested factual material. For example, the information on the career of Henry Morton Stanley reads as if lifted from an encyclopaedia. At times basic conventions of fiction are violated: characters speak at such inordinate length the listener would be looking for the door.
I found myself constantly wishing for documentary support for the text – footnotes, even – which is no way to evaluate a novel.
That said, the life of Roger Casement, even if under-dramatised here, is of compelling interest and Llosa has traced its tragic course from his childhood in Victorian Ireland to his execution in an English prison in 1916 at the age of fifty-one. Casement’s career was a mixture of idealism, persistence amounting to heroism – as he endured severe privation and danger while investigating atrocities on rubber plantations in the Belgian Congo and Peru – and extraordinary foolishness.
He was undoubtedly a complex character – he went from being an ardent imperialist to a passionate anti-colonialist and Irish nationalist. From being a lukewarm Anglican, Casement became a convinced Catholic with mystical leanings. His sexuality was, to put it mildly, unusual. Discovering his homosexual urges early, he subsumed them by photographing young men and remained a virgin until well into his twenties. When he finally overcame his self-disgust and had sex, it was as a cruiser of beats in foreign places. That in itself is not unusual, but Casement, in the notorious ‘black diaries’, documented not only his actual and infrequent sexual experiences but also the fantasies about those he wished he had, or had only observed in voyeuristic fashion.
In short, the book, for all its length and detail, does not fully realise its subject. Casement’s attitudes and feelings are stated rather than shown, and the result is a character toned down, like the sepia photographs of the period. Llosa’s treatment of his subject’s sexual history is cool to the point of detachment, and this is not the only lapse. Casement, we learn, was a heavy smoker, but in the long and detailed account of his time in prison smoking is not mentioned. Did he smoke or not? And if not, surely he would have suffered. Llosa’s treatment of sex and smoking represent missed opportunities to dramatise his material.
He is much better on Casement’s absurd plan to collaborate with Germany during World War I to foment and achieve successful rebellion in Ireland. As the plan unravels, Llosa depicts Casement as tortured by the thought that this scheme had been a mistake and would delay rather than advance a push for Irish independence. In Germany, Casement comes close to physical and spiritual disintegration as the depth of his naiveté is brought home to him and here the writing sings. It should have sung more often – in the Congo and Amazon jungles and in the depictions of Roger Casement’s sad inner world.
Mario Vargas Llosa The Dream of the Celt, Faber, 2012, PB, 400pp, $29.99.
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