Alarge part of this book is a retelling of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" with the impressionism and fancy diction stripped away. Instead of a fictional storyteller, Marlow, peeling away levels of consciousness, the Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa sticks to the facts, restricting himself to Wikipedia-like flashbacks about a real person, the British consul, Roger Casement, who lived and studied and, for a time, dispelled the mists of Marlow's nightmare.
In the first decade of the last century, Casement's carefully researched reports created a firestorm of protest at the highest levels of government and singlehandedly cleaned up the rubber trade in the Belgian Congo and the Peruvian Amazon.
For his service, the British Crown knighted Casement and for a while he could do no wrong. Many of the best and brightest were his friends. Joseph Conrad, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were among them.
Due to his next project Casement has been relegated to being only a footnote to the history of colonialism, though he may have done more good for more human beings than anyone else in the early 20th century. With his latest book, Vargas Llosa attempts to change that. There simply aren't enough examples of the kind of unselfish public servant Casement was. He sacrificed his health and his career standing up for the powerless when governments and corporations victimized them.
The problem is that Casement's story didn't end with his triumph. His next crusade ended up doing the exact opposite of what he intended. Vargas Llosa's task is to make sense of the contradictions that marred Casement's last years without ruining the impact of his work in Africa and South America.
With his health completely broken by the hardships of living in the jungle for years, Casement retired from civil service. He focused his attention on his homeland – Ireland – and on the suppression of the Irish state by the British. Born to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, he decided to use his connections to solve this age-old political problem.
The autumn of 1914 was a dangerous time to play at politics. European societies were being torn apart by the excesses of the Age of Imperialism and the political extremes they engendered. The fact that Germany had come late to the colonizing party due to its fractured nature and lack of access to the seas made it seem a more attractive partner than the British. In addition, Germany's efficient government and booming industries seemed a desirable alternative to the disorder of the British Empire.
Although the devastation of World War I eventually created the perfect opportunity for Ireland to break away from British rule, the idea of jump-starting that process by seeking military aid from the Germans in the early stages of that war is what the Irish in my family call "a dumb Irish trick."
Even though his most rabid fellow Irish revolutionaries weren't convinced that Germany could be trusted, Casement traveled to Germany seeking military aid. They led him on but never took him seriously. They had bigger plans for Europe than just Ireland.
A German boat dropped Casement off on the coast of Ireland where he was hoping to stop the Easter Uprising, which he knew was doomed without German support. Casement hadn't fooled anyone. One of his companions in Germany was a spy for the British government. He was arrested and caught up in the wave of reprisals against Irish revolutionaries and sent to prison in England. He might have gotten off with a prison sentence if it hadn't been for his diaries.
A compulsive writer and a stickler for details, he filled confidential diaries with descriptions of homosexual encounters, real and imagined. He left them with a friend before he entered Germany and that person handed them over to the British authorities. They used these diaries, called the Black Diaries, to launch a campaign against him, drumming up support for his execution.
It's difficult to execute a man you've just knighted, especially when he has powerful friends eager to use their influence to lesson his sentence. But homosexuality was a more serious crime than treason apparently. Most of his friends, including Conrad, abandoned him. One who didn't was Yeats, another Protestant Irishman who flirted with fascism for a time.
Casement was hanged as a traitor and buried in the prison yard. Fifty years later the British government allowed his body to be returned to Ireland where he was buried again, this time as a hero.
Vargas Llosa never gives a credible explanation for Casement's transition from a careful and determined gatherer of facts to a freedom fighter who could collude with German officials while his countrymen were in European trenches being killed by Germans.
Vargas Llosa's only rationalization is that Casement worried that his countrymen would lose their souls the way the Africans and South Americans had. But equating the overworked and ill-educated Irish peasants to the natives manipulated by mercenaries in Africa and South America is a stretch. Anyone who knows an Irish man or woman knows that's not likely to happen no matter how bad things get.
Vargas Llosa is too good a writer not to know what he is doing. If he made his narrator a misunderstood hero, the madness of his last years would become nonsense. If he focused on his tragic death, then his service to mankind would fade into the background. To fictionalize his life would dull the hard lessons Casement's early work teaches us.
Vargas Llosa consciously resists the temptation to make this book a work of fiction even though he calls it a novel. He needs Casement's reputation to rest on the facts and not on a writer's invention.
Though slow moving and often repetitive, this historical rendering of his life is essential reading if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Age of Imperialism. Renegade governments and businesses are once again engaging in the same rapacious social Darwinism that almost destroyed Western Civilization in the last century.
A little bending of the truth for dramatic unity might have made this into a novel along the lines of "The Stranger" by Vargas Llosa's hero, Albert Camus. He could have made Casement's leaving his homoerotic writing where anyone could find it an act of self-destruction, an appeal to be caught before he embarked on his folly. He could have written how success often brings out a person's dark side. He could have rambled on about the madness of great men the way Conrad did in "Heart of Darkness."
But then this book wouldn't end up where it will do the most good – on required reading lists for every college course dealing with the history of colonialism and the violation of human rights.
William L. Morris is a poet who ?co-invented The News' poetry page and now lives in Florida.
The Dream of the Celt: A Novel
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Translated by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux358 pages, $28