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And thereby hangs a tale

2 June 2012

6:00 PM

2 June 2012

6:00 PM

The Dream of the Celt Mario Vargas Llosa

Faber, pp.401, £18.99

The heart sinks when news breaks that an already distinguished novelist is trying his or her hand at the Irish revolution. The track record is uninspiring. Anthony Trollope lived many years in Ireland and knew senior nationalist leaders like Isaac Butt; even so, The Land Leaguers (1882) is very disappointing. Iris Murdoch had deep roots in the Northern Irish middle class; despite, or because, of this The Red and the Green (1965) is again a failure by the standards of middle-period Murdoch. Raymond Queneau’s sado-erotic satire on the Easter Rising, We Always Treat Women Too Well (1947), was perhaps unfairly excluded from the official Gallimard edition of Queneau’s oeuvre until 1962. George V. Higgins, described by Grey Gowrie as the ‘Balzac of New England’, achieves a distinctly sub-Balzacian level with his The Patriot Game (1982).

How then does Mario Vargas Llosa fare with his tricky project? Sir Roger Casement (1864–1916) gives the novelist plenty to work with; indeed, his numerous biographers have trawled widely to provide raw material for a novelist. Raised and educated in Protestant north Antrim — the heartland of modern Paisleyism — Casement entered the British foreign service in 1892. He earned an international reputation for his reports (commissioned by the Foreign Office) on atrocities committed by European employers in the Belgian Congo and later in Putomayo, South America. The US government of President Taft was unimpressed by the Putamayo report. J.V. Bryce, our ambassador in Washington, and like Casement an Antrim man, seized the opportunity to inflict Casement on Taft at a dinner party: the tall Celt, ‘haggard and livid from the swamps, fixed with his glittering eyes the rubicund Anglo-
Saxon.’ H.A.L. Fisher concluded: ‘It was like a black snake fascinating a wombat.’ For this and other services, Casement was awarded a knighthood before retiring from the service in 1913.

In October 1914, however, Casement, who had become an ardent Irish nationalist and an admirer of German imperialism, travelled to Berlin, where he was unsuccessful in his efforts to raise an Irish brigade from among Irish prisoners of war. He felt that German support (some 20,000 guns) was likely to be inadequate and returned to Ireland to prevent the proposed Easter Rising in 1916. He sailed for Ireland on a German U-boat and was arrested at Banna Strand on Good Friday, 20 April 1916. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for high treason in London.

In July 1916, while attempts were being made to organise a reprieve, copies of his journals (the so-called Black Diaries) — which appeared to show that Casement was an active homosexual — were circulated by the government. On 3 August, Casement was hanged in Pentonville prison.

Maria Varga Llosa employs the novelist’s device of placing Casement in his last days awaiting execution, while allowing extensive flashbacks to the earlier career, which are particularly effective in their depiction of western cruelty. The story is never less than gripping; but does the novelist illuminate any more than previous biographers, who include, of course, Brian Inglis, a former Spectator editor?

The novelist has, in principle, the capacity to penetrate to the inner sensibility of the man and explore more fully the nature of Casement’s conversion to Irish nationalism, his humanitarian campaigns and his disputed sexuality. The trouble is that the amiable author rather sentimentally funks the issue:

My own impression — that of a novelist, obviously — is that Roger Casement wrote the famous Diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally; that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.

What this means in practice is that rough group sex with sailors may be fantasy while more gentle one-on-one encounters with local lads are real. The problem with this is that the Diaries are detailed and inter-
connected, and there is not a hint of fantasy. Again, the author talks of a ‘gloomy aura’ of ‘paedophilia’ surrounding Casement’s reputation throughout ‘much of the 20th century’. But the truth is that it is only in this century that scholars like the Ulster gay rights activist Geoff Dudgeon, basing himself on archival research, have raised the issue of grooming young boys.

As for the connection between the Irish cause and Casement’s broader humanitarian writings, the author essentially accepts Casement’s own view that there is a fundamental similarity between the working of colonialism and imperialism in Ireland, the Belgian Congo and Putamayo in this period. Llosa allows space for one friend of Casement’s, Herbert Read, to dispute this view, but rather short-circuits the views of another friend, Joseph Conrad, on this topic.

Conrad was unimpressed by the Irish story of oppression, and spoke of

springing from an oppressed race, where oppression was not a matter of history but a crushing fact in the daily life of all individuals, made still more bitter by hatred and contempt. A very different thing from a historical sense of wrong and blundering administration, which I will admit if you like.

Even more profoundly, how do we explain Casement’s explicit enthusiasm for the German empire?

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