Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of empires and dreams

At first glance, the life of Roger Casement, the British diplomat turned Irish nationalist who was executed for treason in 1916, might not seem an obvious subject for a Peruvian novelist, even one as cosmopolitan as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. But after narrating, in the first third of what is at times as much a novelized biography as a biographical novel, how Casement's investigations of atrocities in the Congo led to the unraveling of Leopold II of Belgium's empire in Africa, Mario Vargas Llosa begins a new chapter and a likely explanation emerges:
When, on the last day of August 1910, Roger Casement arrived in Iquitos after some seven weeks of exhausting travel...
Iquitos, where Casement, after the conclusion of his mission to the Congo, was dispatched by the Crown to investigate similar abuses and atrocities on the part of a British-incorporated rubber company, is of course familiar territory for Vargas Llosa, who set parts of several of his earlier novels in that hub of the Peruvian Amazon. But though the chapters devoted to Casement's activities in Peru make up the longest section of the book, they don't overshadow the rest. Tying the novel together, and alternating with the narration of Casement's activities, in the Congo, South America, and Europe, are scenes from Casement's last days, as he awaits execution in a cell in a British prison and reflects on the events of his life.

Born to an Irish Protestant family (his mother retained Catholic sympathies and secretly baptized Roger in the faith), Casement shipped out to Africa as a young man and worked for a time alongside the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Over the course of the twenty years he spent in the Congo he became increasingly disturbed by the ruthlessness with which Leopold's colonial enterprise was being conducted. Ostensibly in the name of civilization and Christianity -- but in fact almost entirely in the service of greed -- the African inhabitants of the Congo Free State were subjected to a pattern of kidnappings, forced labor, savage whippings, amputations, and outright murder, all to ensure that the flow of rubber continued unabated. The number of victims, directly or indirectly, of Leopold's reign is reckoned in the millions. Casement's report to the British government, published in 1904, was instrumental to the successful international campaign to wrest the Congo from the king's control.

Subsequently posted on routine consular duties to Brazil, Casement was soon sent to Iquitos to verify reports of atrocities committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. During his mission he traveled to remote areas of the Amazon basin that lay well beyond the reach of the government in Lima. His investigations revealed not only abuses at times more horrific than those in the Congo, but also a pattern of official collusion and of persecution of those few journalists and officials who were brave enough or foolhardy enough to try to document the atrocities. As Casement began to name names his own life began to be at risk, and during his second visit to Peru he was dissuaded from venturing into areas that were effectively under the Company's control.

If Casement had withdrawn from public life after presenting the findings of his Peruvian report to the Crown, he would probably be universally regarded as a hero of the anti-colonialist and human rights movements. But there was one more chapter in his eventful life. Increasingly identifying himself with his heritage, he retired from the British Foreign Office and was drawn into the Irish nationalist movement, becoming a friend and ally of militant leaders like Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill, and when war broke out in 1914 he was dispatched by the nationalists as an emissary to the Kaiser's Germany. After attempting with little success to organize a corps of pro-independence soldiers from among the ranks of Irish POWs, he arranged for the delivery by Germany of a shipload of guns and ammunition intended for use during the Easter Uprising of 1916. Infiltrated into Ireland by a U-boat just before the uprising, Casement was quickly captured by the British and subsequently convicted of treason and hanged. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave within the prison grounds, and only repatriated to Ireland in 1965.

Any novelist or biographer depicting Casement's life must deal with the vexed question of the "Black Diaries," ostensibly in Casement's hand, portions of which were revealed by the British government as he awaited execution. The diaries, which describe a series of furtive sexual encounters with other men, were used to help discredit Casement at a time when a number of British and Irish intellectuals (among them George Bernard Shaw, but not Casement's old friend Joseph Conrad) were urging clemency. The controversy over whether or not the diaries are genuine has never been fully settled; Vargas Llosa takes a compromise position, suggesting in an Epilogue -- and perhaps not entirely convincingly -- that though the diaries are genuine some of the events that they narrate may not be.
My own impression -- that of a novelist, to be sure -- is that Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but that he didn't live them, at least not entirely, that in them there is much exaggeration and invention, that he wrote certain things because he wanted to but could not live them.
El sueño del celta ("The Dream of the Celt," "the Celt" being a nickname given by some of Casement's friends because of the passion he came to develop for Irish history and culture) has just been published by Alfaguara. As the novel would seem to pose no major obstacles to translation (unlike some of the author's earlier works), an English-language version can probably be expected in a year or so.

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