Sunday, August 26, 2012

The dream of the Celt - Mario Vargas Llosa

This book was published immediately after he was selected for the Nobel Prize in 2010. The anticipation and expectation were very high. More so, after the disappoint over the previous one- The Bad Girl. However, it took a couple of years before the English translation  to come out. In line with his later works ( those released in 21st Century) , Mario Vargas Llosa, takes up subject from history and historical figures and work his magic around those incidents. His earlier works such as 'The way to Paradise ( on Paul Gaguin) or 'The Feast of the Goat' ( on the dictator Rafael Trujillo of Dominican Republic) were very good, especially the feast of the goat. This time, he takes the case of Roger Casement , an IRISH revolutionary who spend his early days in Africa and later in Amazon fighting for the cause of the indigenous people against the abuse of colonial power.

Waiting for the hangman's rope in the Pentonville Prison in London, Roger Casement  ( "one of the great anti-colonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time, and a sacrificed combatant for the emancipation of Ireland.” )  recounts his turbulent life spent across three continents. His appeal for clemency is under scrutiny by the Parliament, however the hope seems to be less, after the revelations of his sexual preference ( for the young dark boys of Africa and Amazon)  is made public by the authorities, obtained from his secret dairy. He seldom has visitors, most of his high profiled friends including some of the leading writers of the world abstain from meeting him or supporting him in public, for he is now under trial as a traitor of the kingdom, which once honoured him with Knighthood. Few visitors include an acquaintance in London and a Catholic Priest.

Roger's childhood is spend with his uncle and aunt after the death of his mother ( who continue to appear to him in his dreams) and later his father. Joined as an apprentice in a logistic firm, he get an opportunity to travel to Congo , which changes the course of his life.  Accompanying the great African explorer Stanley ( whom he recall as "one of the most unscrupulous villains the west had excreted on to the continent of Africa"), he had witnessed the atrocities of the colonial power Belgium inflicting upon the natives in their quest for 'black gold' rubber which is in great demand in the industrialised world. Its his investigation and report that opened the truth of the atrocities and cruelties that are subjected on the natives by the colonial powers.

On his return to England, he was entrusted with another challenge. This time to enquire about the activities of a British Company owned by Julio C Arana, in the Amazon jungles at Putamayo, Peru. To his dismay, the situation in Amazon is no better than what was in Congo. Those in power used all their cruel means to subdue and servile the native for their personal fortune. The levels of cruelty and abuse is no less and not surprisingly, those who were to take action were found in indulging the same atrocities, often paid by the business.

It is during these days in the jungle, that kindles Roger's patriotic believes. "Wasn't Ireland a colony too, Like the Congo ? Hadn't England invaded Ireland ? Hadn't they incorporated it into the empire by force, not consulting those who had been invaded and occupied, just as the Belgians did with the Congolese ?".  The rest of Casement life had been now focused towards Ireland.  Learning its history, its unique culture, and unsuccessfully trying to learn Gaelic, he started working with the Irish republican brotherhood and other similar organisations. His currently acquired fame made him the attraction and he was busy spreading the message across the country despite his physical illness in the form of arthritis. Raising funds for the organisation, trying to gather support of Germany ( enemy's enemy is our friend) to work along with the Irish Republican  Brotherhood in the event of an armed offensive, trying to secure arms and ammunition to the fighters, he worked round the clock for his dream. He was caught by the British Army, on his attempt to return to Ireland from Germany prior to the Easter Rising offensive, and was sentenced to death, by the court.

Written in three parts, each dedicated to Congo, Amazon and Ireland, Mario Vargas Llosa, does what he is best at. Weaving his narrative from the historical facts with his mastery and imagination, he build the case of Roger Casement. The cruelty and atrocities of the colonials ( chopping of penis and limbs, the whip marks on natives for smaller errors, the knife mark on the bodies with the company details etc), the plight of the soldiers who are asked to perform these atrocities by their superiors, the business houses with the eye for money and the personal preferences of Roger Casement,  etc are noted with keen observation and with detachment. Where history does not provide him with direct details, I think he excels himself. Where the available data is sufficient and with no scope of imagination, his writings are dull and plain as a text book., The part of Congo and Amazon are written brilliantly. However, the last part on Ireland does not live upto the previous two. However, he finishes in style.

Though this do not stand among his best books, it is better than the previous one.  Despite the uneven narrative towards the end, it still holds pretty well as a strong powerful tale. The narratives technique is brilliant often moving between the present ( 1916 at Pentonville Jail) to the respective continents. The ease of shifting of the narrative space is amazing. The language is fluid and poetic at many places. Again, not amongst his best,  good nonetheless.
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The Dream of the Celt ( 2010)

Mario Vargas Llosa  ( translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman 2012)

Faber & Faber

403 Pages
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Wiki Entry, Guardian, NY Times, Washington Post, Sydney Morning Herald, Telegraph, Independent

1 comment:

Miguel said...

Vargas Llosa has become one of the best novelist using history as a staring point for his narratives. If you liked this and The Feast of the Goat, you also need to read The War of the End of the World, perhaps his best 'historical' novel.