Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa is one of the sacred cows of Latin American literature and rightly so. His body of work is rich and vast. It encompasses the experimental THE GREEN HOUSE, the lighthearted autobiographical romp AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPT WRITER, the the humorous CAPTAIN PANTOJA AND THE SPECIAL SERVICE, the historical novel THE WAR AT THE END OF THE WORLD—a reprise of Brazilian Euclides da Cunha's OS SERTÕES—the political thriller THE FEAST OF THE GOAT with journalism and literary criticism in between. His seventeenth novel, THE DREAM OF THE CELT, recently reissued in paperback by Picador--a retelling of Irish nationalist and human rights activist Roger Casement's life-- is not one of his best efforts. It begins well. The first chapter is taut, fast paced compelling, brief. An omniscient narrator readsCasement's thoughts as the the latter awaits at Pentonville Prison, in London, for a decision on his appeal against his death sentence for “treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown.” Up to that moment, there is hope that the sentence will be commuted. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Yeats and Bernard Shaw were among the luminaries who spoke in Casement's support. There was, after all, his impressive record as an advocate of oppressed people in the Congo and in Peru. There was the question of the validity of the medieval Treason Act 1341. Casement 's alleged crimes “had been carried out in Germany and the medieval Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or, arguably, British) soil. A close reading of the medieval Act allowed for a broader interpretation: the court decided that a comma should be read in the text, crucially widening the sense so that "in the realm or elsewhere" referred to where acts were done and not just to where the "King's enemies" may be. This led to the claim that Casement was 'hanged on a comma'”. The arrival of his lawyer's assistant, rather than his lawyer is the first ominous hint that there will be no mercy. Llosa captures the situation brilliantly, adding little touches that pull the reader into Casement's reality--the muffled sounds, the absence of clocks, the grime on the walls, the motionless jailers, the skull beneath the foppish assistant's skin, the scorn in his voice. Then comes the bombshell, Casement's private diaries have been leaked to the press.
Cut to Casement's Irish childhood, a move that is pure Llosa, the omnipotent time lord. In the first chapter, Casement is in hell. In the lyrical second, he is in Ireland/Paradise. Later he spends in idyllic summer vacations in Liverpool where an uncle tells him stories about Africa and Africa is where the story really begins, in the Congo, 1906. As British consul, “..he had to verify on the ground how much truth there was in the denunciations of atrocities committed against natives in the Congo of His Majesty King Leopold II, king of the Belgians, made by the Aborigenes' Protection Society in London, and some Baptist churches and Catholic missions in Europe and the United States.” Ironically, just as the real story begins, Llosa's pace slows down. It drags. Maybe it is the inexhaustible catalog of illness, injustice, inhumanity, and greed that weighs the storyteller down. Maybe Latin languages suffer in translation. Whatever the causes, less than halfway through the narrative loses its power. There are so many cruelties—kidnappings, enslavement, rapes,robberies, mutilations, murders of Congolese workers in rubber plantations--amny of which belonged to the king-- that the mind goes into empathy overload. The heart shuts down in order to keep from being forever broken. This cannot have been Llosa's intention. His goal must have been to engage the reader, to summon indignation. He must have wanted to chronicle oppression, suffering and the heroic role of those such as Casement who fought to bring to public attention the unconscionable behaviour of capitalists first in Africa and later in Latin America, but above all he must have wanted his book to be a call to action. It is not.
By the time Casement is writing a report on the misdeeds of the owners of the British-registered Peruvian Amazon Company in Putumayo, Peru, the reader is numb. When he equates the British occupation of Ireland with the brutality he saw in Boma and Putumayo, the reader is crushed by bloviated prose. As the novel goes on, the writing becomes repetitive, turgid, and flabby by turns. The problem with advocacy literature is that it is so freighted with good intentions it often sinks of its own weight. Casement goes home, joins The Gaelic League and ends up in Germany hoping for military support against the British. Returning to Ireland in German submarine, he is captured. The Kerry Brigade of the Irish Volunteers decides not to rescue him. A perfidious Norwegian lover goes over to to the British, who are only too happy to pay him for information on Casement's sexual preferences. They release the Black Diaries, in which Casement wrote about his many homosexual encounters with young boys. This, it seems, becomes the real issue. There might be mercy for traitors, but there is no mercy for homosexuals in 1916 Britain. Newspapers revile Casement, the powers that be strip him of his knighthood and then they hang him. All this should erupt from page like a great fire. It does not. It was Llosa who said that “La literatura es fuego” (literature is fire.) Regrettably, this book is little more than a spark.