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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: A Critical Review in Three Parts: Part Two

December 3, 2014
Stamps Commemorating The Easter Rising when Irish nationalists rose in armed revolt against 800 years of British rule. Roger Casement, a man born of privilege, gave his life in support of this cause

Stamps Commemorating The Easter Rising when Irish nationalists rose in armed revolt against 800 years of British rule. Roger Casement, a man born of privilege, gave his life in support of this cause

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Now give me that old-time religion 

Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
And it’s good enough for me

It will do when I am dying,…

It was good for the prophet Daniel,…

It was tried in the fiery furnace,…

It will take us all to heaven,..

– a traditional American gospel dating from 1873 –

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1. Did Roger Casement find God?

Vargas Llosa constructs his narrative, interspersing scenes of Roger Casement’s life with his final days before his execution. The main episodes of Casement’s life, his early life, time in the Congo, Brazil, the Putumayo investigations, his embracing of Irish nationalism, his homosexual affairs in Africa and Latin America are all covered and with feeling and considerable detail. But it is those final days and hours that are given much greater attention, where Casement appears to embrace Catholicism and a belief in God which in many ways is more central to the narrative that even his human rights work. In fact, it comes through as  perhaps Vargas Llosa’s main purpose in writing the book – a case study of a non-religious man who happens to “find God” at the end of his life. Casement’s life itself filled with drama and turmoil is just incidental. Roger Casement’s biography, even in the format of a historical novel, deserves better.

There is a sizable literature, starting with Homer’s Iliad, which gives supreme importance to how men, and it is men, die. (Women don’t enter the narrative as equals, only as supporting cast both in Homer and Vargas Llosa). While how a person dies does tell us something about how she/he lived, I have long thought what is much more important, is how she/he conducted their lives throughout. The notion of evaluating, or, let’s get to the point of judging, someone based on how they respond to a single final episode or moment, has always struck me as a simplistic exaggerated way of evaluating a person’s contribution to the human condition. In the end how important is it? Of some significance I suppose, but still.

For Vargas Llosa, if The Dream of the Celt is the model, how Roger Casement spent his last days in the face of death is supremely, I would say, too important. Does he face death calmly, with courage or as a coward in fear? Does he die, as did 16th century atheists put to the torch in France and England, or as Spinoza did (not exactly an atheist, but certainly an opponent of organized religion) unrepentant? Or doe he “find God.” So it is with The Dream of the Celt. The book starts and ends in Pentonville Prison, the place where Vargas Llosa continually returns to after each elaborating each episode of Casement’s life. Casement’s “journey in this world”, his political life and sex life might have been important, but it is his “final combat” with his spirituality, and his final embrace of Catholicism that is far more important, as if how he died tells us more about the man than how he lived.

In fact, the whole book culminates in Casement’s embrace of religion and Catholicism, a final victory for the forces of conservatism. It is here, in Vargas Llosa’s shaping of the narrative to give such exaggerated dramatic emphasis to Casement’s conversion to Catholicism that the ax that this author has to grind becomes more apparent, if not obvious. It is the driving theme and purpose of the book: at the last moment, Casement finds God, that is the most important thing. Please! For most of his life, religion is unimportant to Roger Casement until the end. The way the book is constructed Vargas Llosa would have the reader believe that Casement’s life is a journey from atheism to deep religious conversion, that in his last days, the great humanitarian rediscovered the Catholic version of God and Jesus Christ. It is precisely this section of the narrative that appears contrived and overblown. Actually it is an old hackneyed theme polished up and served as a new idea to the reader: the non-believer who facing death by execution at his last moments finds religion and God. There are other explanations for Casement’s late conversion to Catholicism, most notably, the role that the religion played in the Irish nationalist movement. The religious fact was not insignificant in the Irish national movement in which Protestant England had colonized Catholic Ireland. Casement’s acceptance of Catholicism might have been little more than a final break with Ulster-Protestant roots.

The way the book is constructed Vargas Llosa would have the reader believe that Casement’s life is a journey from atheism to deep religious conversion, that in his last days, the great humanitarian rediscovered the Catholic version of God and Jesus Christ. It is precisely this section of the narrative that appears contrived and overblown.

2. The Missing Factor: The Social Movement, The Left in Vargas Llosa’s Narrative

Reading The Dream of the Celt, it is not difficult to conclude that the anti-colonial, anti-racist movement of the day and the left (socialist) movement was extremely weak to non-existent. One would be hard pressed after reading Vargas Llosa to find the burgeoning radical working class and Left movement of the period, The Left is completely absent from the narrative, as if it did not exist. While dealing with late 19th – early 20th century material now early in the 21st century, this study of Casement’s life reads like a class post Cold War narrative that understand progress and democracy in somewhat herculean individual human rights efforts by economic free traders like E. D. Morel and Roger Casement as the only possible way to respond to human injustice.

As achieving justice for the people of the Congo, the Amazon or Ireland appears in the book as a somewhat impossible achievable goal – like Camus’ Sisyphus never able to get to the top of his mountain – the only way to continue to fight “the system” is through religious faith. There is no popular social movement pushing and kicking history forward and greed and oppression out-of-the-way. And as the effort will be unsuccessful most of the time anyway, as were Casement’s efforts to bring Juan César Arana and his Peruvian Amazon Company to justice, it helps to have a deep and abiding faith in God to carry one through the psychic and physical pain. With no secular star to guide Casement, Vargas Llosa relates, the good humanitarian finds meaning in faith rather than reason. To make sense of his life, Casement must re-connect to his long-lost Catholic heritage, albeit through the doorway of Irish Nationalism.

No doubt Vargas Llosa is a master wordcraftman, and first-rate psychologist. As one reviewer put it “He..can tell us stories about anything and make them dance to his inventive rhythms.” True enough. I found it difficult to put down the book; it drew me in, fascinated me, in large measure because of the subject matter: Roger Casement. The narrative is riveting, the sections on Casement’s work in the Congo and in the Putumayo River district of Peru (today a part of Colombia) were especially well done (and from what I know, especially of the Congo material, historically accurate). One could say that technically it is another Vargas Llosa masterpiece. But  technical prowess, be it in literature, sports or science by itself can be at the same time, both impressive and shallow. The examples – in this country and throughout the world – abound. It’s just the packaging, but for what?

Despite the fact that The Dream of the Celt shows that Vargas Llosa has not lost his technical genius, in the end, this is a profoundly conservative and politically motivated book. In it Vargas Llosa essentially treats Casement as a Christ-like, existential figure following his conscience to wherever it might lead him, suffering physically, emotionally and from the near universal scorn of his compatriots on a lonely journey to death with nothing left but his spiritual attachment to God. Religious minded people might take great interest, delight in such a narrative – as would the admirers of Ayn Rand. Humanity’s lonely search for God. How boring!

Despite the fact that The Dream of the Celt shows that Vargas Llosa has not lost his technical genius, in the end, this is a profoundly conservative and politically motivated book. In it Vargas Llosa essentially treats Casement as a Christ-like, existential figure following his conscience to wherever it might lead him, suffering physically, emotionally and from the near universal scorn of his compatriots on a lonely journey to death with nothing left but his spiritual attachment to God. Religious minded people might take great interest, delight in such a narrative – as would the admirers of Ayn Rand. Humanity’s lonely search for God. How boring!

Another book with a similar theme repeatedly came to mind as I read The Dream of the Celt; John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful: the Life and Times of Emir Abd el – Kader. Abd el Kader was a 19th century Algerian Sufi mystique and leader of the Algerian uprising against the advent of French colonialism in his country. The subject matter seems different, but the underlying themes are similar. Unquestionably Abd el-Kader is a fascinating personality and in fundamental ways was motivated throughout his life in both how he lived and how he fought the French by deep religious conviction. Religious conviction plays a much more fundamental role in Abd el Khader’s life than in Casement’s where it seems more of an add-on at the end.

There is a common thread in what Vargas Llosa and Kiser are relating: that, in this world where secular ideologies – radical nationalism, Marxism – “have failed” and what is left for humanity to cling to is religion. It is deeply religious people – holy men really like Abd el Kader and Casement – imbued with a deep spirituality and belief in God, be it of the Catholic or Islamic variety, that have the integrity and moral strength to stand up against “the system” in all its cruel, inhumane manifestations. It is in particular their spiritual faith – not some more secular political ideology – that guides them. Vargas Llosa suggests, in Casement’s case it was this spiritual faith, unbeknownst to Casement most of his life to persevere in the Congo and Putumayo, and to succeed against all odds at the task. Humanism, secular values, rationalism itself are all too weak in the face of such horror. It takes faith!

Nonsense.

Roger Casement, 1913, among the Putumayo native peoples enslaved to gather rubber for the Peruvian Amazon Company

Roger Casement, 1913, among the Putumayo native peoples enslaved to gather rubber for the Peruvian Amazon Company

3. Roger Casement from British Imperialist to anti-colonial militant. 

Frankly,  more interesting than his conversion to Catholicism is his political conversion to an anti-colonial anti-British imperialist which Vargas Llosa notes, but hardly discusses. It doesn’t interest him. Born of privilege, the son of an Irish-Protestant officer in the British Army, Roger Casement is, at the outset of his time in the Congo an ardent imperialist, a firm believer in the White Man’s Burden to spread the wonders of civilization to “more primitive” peoples. Casement worked for Leopold II”s Congo Free State for more than a decade and helped set up the very structures of exploitation, the trading posts along the Congo, the system for the delivery of rubber and ivory from the upstream regions, etc. It was only rather late in the game that the full horror of Leopold’s Congo project came smashing through his consciousness. He helped build Leopold’s system of slave labor with all of its concomitant brutality and horrors. But unlike many others who could not look the evil fruit of their labor in the face and see it for what it was, Casement had the moral courage to face what the system in which he had participated, to understand its full dimension – ie, Auschwitz before Auschwitz and to act with great personal courage and integrity to expose and ultimately bring down the worst aspects of that system. Red Rubber!

Therein lies his greatness, his example followed a half century later by one Daniel Ellsberg an analyst for the RAND Corporation who came to understand his personal role in the crimes against humanity the United States was committing in Vietnam. Ellsberg was a part of a a system of oppression hiding behind an idealistic pretext (in this latter case, “fighting communism’). There are others, those Vietnam Veterans Against the War who came back from the killing fields, came to realize the pretexts for their killing and dying were just that, pretexts, to learn the painful lessons that life can sometimes teach people if they are willing to look and listen…and from that pain and growing awareness they began to see the bigger picture and to stand up for against injustice. THAT is what is important about Roger Casement – his example, his ability to learn from his pain, to be honest, to genuinely change and then to act on those changes. The fact that in this last days he turned to Catholicism is such an insignificant part of the man’s life, yet Vargas Llosa magnifies it, blowing it all out of proportion, in large measure because he has an ax to grind – his contempt for social movements and for the activities of the Left in particular, whose very existence he purges from the narrative.

For Vargas Llosa, the main point is that Casement “found God” in the end, more of a footnote than the main theme of Casement’s life. the main point is elsewhere, in his rediscovery of his common humanity, his solidarity with the Blacks in the Congo, the native peoples of the Putumaya region of what was then Peru, of his rediscovery of his own extraordinarily rich and painful Irish heritage. His was a life lived for others, not for finding God and if religion helped him, particularly in his later years, to contribute to the human condition, all the better. Casement gave his life for Irish independence, not as some Christian martyr Vargas Llosa makes him out to be dying for religion and his God, but for humanity. Casement’s was a long strange journey…in the end, one in which, through his actions, he gave up his white skin privilege…one of the few do so.

For Vargas Llosa, the main point is that Casement “found God” in the end, more of a footnote than the main theme of Casement’s life. the main point is elsewhere, in his rediscovery of his common humanity, his solidarity with the Blacks in the Congo, the native peoples of the Putumaya region of what was then Peru, of his rediscovery of his own extraordinarily rich and painful Irish heritage.

Vargas Llosa got Casement all wrong in the end. For all his eloquent wordiness, his is a profoundly cynical interpretation of Roger Casement’s life.

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Part One

Part Three

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. John Kane permalink
    December 3, 2014 1:59 pm

    Well, Rob, I think you got some of it right, though I’m not talking about either Casement or Vargas Llosa and his book. Yet I suspect you make the same error you criticize. That is separating religion (in this case Irish Catholicism) and social movements (in this case left criticism of colonial oppression). But it ain’t so simple. Many Irish atheists have made serious contributions to protest and social change in ways that should lead a more sensitive critic to understand a complex relationship between explicit faith, a religious culture, and political causes. I don’t know Casement’s story, but I do know many clear headed Catholic atheists (or Menonite or Jewish atheists) who would own the contribution of religion to their lives of protest — often caused by their very Christian critique of established Catholicism (or Judaism).

    • December 3, 2014 2:14 pm

      Actually John, I am aware of the interplay between secular and religious progressives and the way that they build and feed off one another. It can be – and personally has been – a rich exchange, although you are on to something to point it out. What I am trying to say here, a perhaps I didn’t say it clearly enough, is something different. I think that Vargas Llosa’s portrayal of Casement is essentially cynical and ideological. That is my reading of his treatment of Casement’s life. Suggest, if you have the time and interest, that you read about Casement, a most extraordinary human being. I’ll be writing more about him in the period ahead…and in fact my two part series, more than likely will be a three or four part series; I want to probe two subjects – first is…what WAS Casement’s contribution to human rights investigations? In many ways he set the standard and a very high one in this field and is considered by many to be a founder, a standard bearer of human rights work today. The second subject I want to pursue is the terror and brutality of the late 19th century early 20th century rubber extraction industry, be it in the Amazon or Congo basins. It resembles in many ways the current mining for coltan in the Congo today. more on that later. best, Rob.

      • John Kane permalink
        December 3, 2014 2:16 pm

        Rob — thanks for the kind reply — and accurate — I did take your point to be about the ideological use of C’s life in the book, but said it too quickly.

Trackbacks

  1. The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: A Critical Review in Two Parts. Part One |
  2. The-Dream-of-the-Celt-by-Mario-Vargas-Llosa: A Critical Review in Three Parts: Part Three |

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