I first discovered Mario Vargas Llosa in 1990 when I was in Peru to see a friend, climb Machu Picchu and write an article. That was the time when Vargas Llosa, the novelist, was running for president of Peru. The guerilla movement Shining Path was terrorizing the countryside, and the economy was falling apart. Vargas Llosa thought a renewed democracy and free market could save the country. But what made a novelist think he could cure a nation’s ills? He lost the election to Alberto Fujimori, who is now in prison.
I was told then that Vargas Llosa’s 600-page novel Conversation in the Cathedral (1975), a complex group of dialogues involving a network of families during political upheaval in Peru, was a key to his political ideas. I read it, but I had to wait for his latest book, The Dream of the Celt, to find the answer to my question.
Vargas Llosa has been a political activist all his life, shifting from left to right with his ideas, but certain themes hold: opposition to dictators and the exploitation of the weak and poor throughout the world. Inevitably this led him to Roger Casement, whose life is the main focus of The Dream of the Celt and whom John Banville in The New York Review of Books (10/25/12) called “one of the greatest Irishmen who ever lived”—though his reputation has been smothered by the combined bile of his enemies and his own foolishness, which led to his being hanged by the British for treason in 1916.
In The Dream of the Celt, named after a Casement poem, Vargas Llosa, who lives in Madrid, London and Peru, returns with the novelist’s imagination to Peru with the tragedy of a good man in a corrupt state. The novel is structured as a three-part biography of Casement, each focused on a main period in his career: the Congo, Amazonia and Ireland. Each chapter opens in Casement’s prison cell as he awaits the fate of his appeal and drifts back into the events that led to his life’s unraveling.
Born in Ireland in 1864, son of the dashing Captain Roger Casement of the Light Dragoons in India, whom he admired, and Anne Jepson, a closet Catholic who secretly had him baptized at age 4, whom he adored. Casement lost his mother at 9; and his father, unhinged by grief, farmed out his four children to relatives.
In 1884 he served his apprenticeship as an explorer with Henry Morton Stanley, famous for his expedition into the Congo to find the “lost” missionary Dr. David Livingstone. Stanley’s later task was to open up thousands of square miles of territory in Africa for European businessmen of the International Congo Society, presided over by King Leopold II of Belgium. After 18 years’ experience in Africa, Casement realized that Stanley was a cruel, unscrupulous villain who deceived the natives to hand over their land for nothing but false promises in return and whose whippings left a multitude of scarred, skinny black bodies across the continent. In the 1890s, employed as consul by the British Foreign Office, Casement worked for years building a case against the criminal activities of King Leopold’s government and emerged, with his report in 1903, as a champion of human rights.
In 1910, after four years in Brazil, Casement carried this zeal into Peru, at the request of the British foreign secretary, to investigate accusations of cruelty by the Peruvian Amazon Company in the Putumayo region: floggings, stocks and the rack; cut-off ears, noses, hands and feet; men hanged, shot, burned or drowned under the direction of Armando Normand, the district manager in Matanzas. Accused of mistreating workers, Normand replied, “You can’t treat animals like human beings.” Casement shot back: “I’ve lived for twenty years in Africa and I didn’t turn into a monster—which is what you have become.”
Casement’s two reports on Peru made him even more famous, and he was granted a knighthood; but honors from England made him uncomfortable. As he began comparing England’s treatment of Ireland to the colonial exploitation of Africa and Latin America, he reverted more and more to what he had been born, an Irishman. An Irish revolution was boiling up and he wanted to be part of it; when World War I broke out in 1914, he dreamed up a wild plan in which British army prisoners in Germany would team up with German troops “side by side” to invade Ireland, coinciding with the Irish “uprising,” and drive the British out. But at the last moment he was convinced that the uprising would fail, and he returned secretly to Ireland in a German U-boat to convince the rebels to call the uprising off. Too late. The uprising flopped; many rebels were killed or imprisoned. Casement was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. Long-time English friends dropped him; how could they even look at this man who conspired with the enemy when their own sons were dying on the battlefields of France?
Meanwhile, Casement’s captured journals revealed his homosexual activity. Vargas Llosa suggests that much of the sexual activity described is fantasized, but the incidents described are sad. He bought minutes of sex from “beautiful” boys as he traveled. Following months of abstinence, he compulsively dove in again. The one young man who became a traveling companion turned out to be a British spy. Here is a man 52 years old idolized as a moral hero for risking his life and reputation to protect victims of exploitation and torture in far off jungles who has never known love—neither romantic love nor deep friendship—except from the mother who still appears in his dreams.
When I was first drawn to Vargas Llosa 24 years ago I was taken by the title of Conversation in the Cathedral, as if it represented the tension between social-political and religious life. Only later did I learn that “Cathedral” was the name of a pub where they talked. But I was not far off. Vargas Llosa, a Nobel Prize winner in literature in 2010, remains a moralist committed to justice. So was Casement—though sometimes very confused.
At the same time that his life was deteriorating, Casement was being drawn, paradoxically, into the Catholic Church, influenced by missionary priests encountered in his travels; and he was delighted when the prison chaplain checked his baptismal record and convinced him he had been a Catholic all his life. Now, for comfort, he read The Imitation of Christ. On the eve of his execution two priests prayed with him. He confessed his sins at great length and wept profusely; then they talked for hours, mostly about their vocations. The next morning he received his first Communion, which was also his viaticum. Sunlight flooded the open yard. When the governor asked if he had anything to say, Casement simply murmured, “Ireland.” The executioner said later that Roger Casement was “the bravest man” he had ever hanged.