BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
The life and death of Roger Casement
, March 30, 2013
THE DREAM OF THE CELT:
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Paperback: 400 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Perhaps one of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters in British and Irish 20th-century history is Roger Casement, the subject of a recent historical novel by Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian-Spanish writer who in 2010 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Vargas Llosa’s interest in Casement is doubtless derived from Casement’s exposure of the Peruvian Amazonian Company’s cruel treatment of South American indigenous people early in the 20th century.
The novel commences in London’s Pentonville prison in 1916. Casement has been found guilty of high treason and is awaiting the outcome of an appeal for clemency lodged by his lawyer, Mr George Gavan Duffy (who, incidentally, was a son of a 19th-century premier of Victoria, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, and half-brother of Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, at one time Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia).
On being visited by George Gavan Duffy’s assistant, Casement learns that his appeal has stalled because explicit details of his private life — he was a closet homosexual — have come to light. His diaries, in which he recorded his sexual adventures, have been seized as evidence by Scotland Yard and been circulated among certain sections of society.
Vargas Llosa’s narrative then alternates between Casement’s time in prison, as he awaits his execution by hanging, and flashbacks which chart the course of his eventful life. In doing so, Vargas Llosa presents his interpretation of Casement’s personality and offers plausible reasons for the choices he made.
Casement was born near Dublin in 1864 to an Anglo-Irish family. His Protestant father and Catholic mother both died while he was still a child.
His first job was for a Liverpool shipping firm, and this company sent him to Africa. He later worked for the British Foreign Office, and it was as a consular official in the Belgian Congo that he observed firsthand the exploitation of native Africans by the white colonists.
It was an historical irony that the Congo had been ceded to Belgium by other European powers in the belief that the country’s king, Leopold II, would use Belgian rule as a means of bringing the benefits of European civilisation to that part of Africa.
Casement produced a copiously detailed eyewitness report exposing grave human rights abuses and the terrible ways the Europeans treated the native people. The Casement Report, as it became known, was delivered in 1904 and eventually made public. It rapidly made him a celebrity.
A few years later, Casement was commissioned to investigate allegations that the Peruvian Amazonian Company was exploiting indigenous South Americans on its rubber plantations. As a consul in Brazil at the time, he travelled overland twice in 1910 and 1911, and confirmed that the company was maltreating and effectively enslaving the Putumayo Indians.
In 1911, he completed a report on the subject for the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey.
The publication of the main details of his report led to the demise of the Peruvian Amazonian Company. The Peruvian government took some steps to punish the perpetrators, but many of them fled justice. However, one of the rubber barons, and a key member of the company, Julio Cesar Arana, later became a Peruvian senator.
Casement was knighted for his humanitarian work — although, paradoxically, by then, he had become an ardent Irish nationalist, aligned closely with the more radical elements of the Irish nationalist cause. He resigned from the Foreign Office and chose to settle in Ireland.
Vargas Llosa suggests that Casement’s sympathy with Irish nationalism was prompted by his observations of the plight of colonised people in Africa and South America. He became convinced that the Irish were themselves victims of English colonisation and exploitation. He sought to learn about Irish culture. However, try as he might, he was never able to master the Irish language.
Home Rule for Ireland was finally granted in 1914 by the British Government on condition it would not be implemented until the conclusion of the Great War. Meanwhile, Casement — now in the United States — despaired that Ireland would ever gain independence through peaceful means.
He then made the fateful decision to travel to Germany to organise an Irish Brigade, made up of Irish members of the British Army, who were being held as prisoners of war in Germany.
Casement was later conveyed to Ireland in a German U-boat and, on April 21, 1916, was put ashore in Tralee Bay, County Kerry, in Ireland’s south-west.
It was his intention to stall the Irish nationalists’ planned armed insurrection — the famous Easter Rising, which took place three days later. The rising was aimed at bringing an end to British rule in Ireland. However, Casement believed that it needed to be carefully timed to coincide with a major German offensive on the Western front which would tie down the forces of the British Empire.
Vargas Llosa’s historical novel captivates the reader, not only through his recounting of Casement’s eventful life, but also through his imaginative recreation of Casement’s inner life, particularly his commitment to exposing cruelty and exploitation and his embracing of Irish nationalism.
Vargas Llosa also explores Casement’s private life, suggesting that many of the explicit entries of casual sexual encounters in his diaries were in fact fabrications. At one point, Vargas Llosa imagines Casement feeling dissatisfied and depressed after such liaisons. By contrast, later in his life, Casement would turn to religion and find consolation in it, especially while in prison awaiting the outcome of his appeal.
In those parts of the narrative set in Pentonville Prison, Casement is described as reading Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, although at times he is unable to concentrate on doing so for any length of time.
Casement had had a Protestant father, but his mother had her son secretly re-baptised a Catholic while a small child. However, it was only in the last few weeks of his life that Casement “re-activated” his Catholicism. He made his first (and last) confession and communion just before he was hanged.
Vargas Llosa movingly explores Casement’s interaction with a prison warder, who initially despises Casement whom he deems a traitor, particularly as his own son has been killed in action. However, when the warder confides in Casement his difficulties in coming to terms with his son’s death, Casement shows empathy towards him and the two men establish a rapport.
The Dream of the Celt is a fascinating retelling and exploration of the life and career of Roger Casement, an intriguing figure from the annals of 20th-century history, although probably not as widely known as he deserves to be outside of Ireland.