The OF Blog: Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del celta (The Celt's Dream)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa, El sueño del celta (The Celt's Dream)

«Hoy he iniciado el regreso a Boma.  Según mis planes, debería haber continuado en el Alto Congo un par de semanas más.  Pero, la verdad, ya tengo material de sobra para mostrar en mi informe las cosas que aquí ocurren.  Temo que, de continuar escudriñando los extremos a que puede llegar la maldad y la ignominia de los seres humanos, no seré siquiera capaz de escribir mi report.  Estoy en las orillas de la locura.  Un ser humano normal no puede sumergirse por tantos meses en este infierno sin perder la sanidad, sin sucumbir a algún trastorno mental.  Algunas noches, en mi desvelo, siento que me está ocurriendo.  Algo se está desintegrando en mi mente.  Vivo con una angustia constante.  Si sigo codeándome con lo que ocurre aquí terminaré yo también impartiendo chicotazos, cortando manos y asesinando congoleses entre el almuerzo y la cena sin que ello me produzca el menor malestar de conciencia ni me quite el apetito.  Porque eso es lo que les ocurre a los europeos en este condenado país.» (pp. 108-109)

"I am beginning the return to Boma.  According to my plans, I should have stayed in the High Congo for a couple of weeks longer.  But, the truth, I already have an excess of material to show en my report the things which occur here.  I fear that, from continuing to examine the extremes to which the evilness and ignorance of human beings can arrive, I will not even be capable of writing my report.  I am on the edge of insanity.  A normal human being is not able to submerge himself for so many months in this hell without losing his insanity, without succumbing to some mental disturbance.  Some nights, in my insomnia, I feel this is occurring to me.  Something is disintegrating in my mind.  I live in constant anguish.  If I continue jostling myself with what occurs here I myself will also end up imparting whiplashes, chopping off hands and assassinating Congolese between lunch and dinner without producing in myself the least trouble to my conscience nor the loss of appetite.  Because that is what occurs to Europeans here in this damned country."
In his first novel to be released after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 2010, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa continues his recent trend of writing novels dealing with the lives of controversial figures of the past century.  Instead of writing about individuals such as those involved in the infamous Trujillo dictatorship (The Feast of the Goat) or Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (The Way to Paradise), Vargas Llosa tackles perhaps the most complex historical figure of those he has written about to date:  the Irish hero/British traitor Roger Casement. 

Even 94 years after his execution for his role in the failed Easter Rebellion, Casement causes controversy on both sides of the Irish Sea.  To this date, Casement's body has never been buried in his native County Antrim because of the division between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.  When his body was exhumed in the 1960s from the quicklime pit into which the bodies of traitors were buried, the aging first Irish President, Eamon de Valera (himself a leader of the Irish during the civil war/war for independence), defied doctor's orders to not exert himself, just so he could be present when Casement's body was returned to Irish soil.  His posthumous legend is still powerful all these generations after his execution, but yet there are troubling issues about his latter years.  Why did he switch from being a loyal British Civil Service official in the early 1900s to being the middleman between the German government and the Easter Rebels during World War I?  And what about those damning "Black Diaries" that were published in photographed form during his trial that apparently revealed him to be a closet homosexual at best (during a time when homosexuality was a crime punishable by hard labor) and a predatory pedophile at worst?

Vargas Llosa treads carefully through those treacherous waters in this novel.  He chooses to tell Casement's story as a sort of confessional, where the condemned Casement reflects back on the turning point in his life.  Vargas Llosa's Casement appears to have experienced a sort of epiphany during his time as a British foreign service official in the Belgian Congo.  Horrified at the casual cruelties he witnessed there, he goes to the brink of madness before deciding that what truly horrifies him is the hypocrisy of himself, a native son of Ireland, helping Ireland's oppressor force the African nations into the same imperialistic chains which first had been clasped around Ireland.  Vargas Llosa does not settle for the easy way of just highlighting only the possible reasons behind his radicalization after 1910, but he also tackles the issue of the "Black Diaries" in a way that does not deny the likelihood that said diaries are genuine (I myself still retain some doubt as to their authenticity, but that is a story for another time and place), but also without judging Casement for his actions.

The result of this "middle ground" approach is the portrayal of Casement as neither saint nor devil.  Vargas Llosa presents him as a conflicted, complex individual who warred with his own self as much as he did in his latter struggles against the forces of imperialist aggression, whether they be present in the Congo River valley, the interior of Brazil, or Ireland after the latest round of Home Rule talks had been suspended on the eve of World War I.  Vargas Llosa's prose is elegant but never verbose.  He does not eschew criticizing his subject whenever Casement's actions warrants such treatment, but he also portrays this historical figure as containing admirable elements.  Through it all, Vargas Llosa chooses to emphasize the humanitarian aspects, even when those aspects falter in the face of Casement's many personal demons.

El sueño del celta works as a historical novel because Vargas Llosa keeps the focus squarely on Casement and his internal and external struggles.  Despite the jumping back and forth in the narrative between 1910 and 1916, there is rarely confusion about the sequence of events.  If anything, the "present day" scenes serve to reinforce the developments shown in the extended flashback sequences.  The end result of this is a vivid portrayal of a fascinating historical figure, told in crisp, evocative prose that adds vitality to the scenes without distorting what happened during this time.  El sueño del celta may not be one of Vargas Llosa's greatest novels, but it certainly is a very good piece that compares favorably to most of his outstanding œvre.  Highly recommended to both Spanish speakers and to English readers whenever the translation comes out in the next year or two.

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