On Writers

The Dream of the Celt

By Mario Vargas Llosa,
Hachette 2010.

The tradition here is that of a historical novel.

The structure acts like an archive. The immediate, the present time, in the prison, is written with attention to vividness, obeying the writer’s maxim ‘Don’t describe it, show it.’ The flashbacks to Casement’s earlier life as a British Civil Servant reporting on human abuses in Africa, after the ‘Scramble for Africa’ meeting in 1845, and then in South American rubber plantations, have the sound and feel of biography rather than a novel.

During the prison scenes, waiting for execution as a traitor by the English, Vargas Llosa does well with breakaway to reveries or wonderings, and returning again to a conversation, say, during a visit by the historian Alice, or the surprising midnight visit by the sheriff who mourns his dead son.

This is nowhere near this writer’s best work, but I am grateful to have read about Casement’s work against the horrors of colonialism.

Gerard Windsor’s review in The Sydney Morning Herald seems to me too harsh, this is not ‘a third rate novel’ but it’s not first rate either. Windsor is himself a fine writer, ex-Jesuit, fluent Latin speaker, who could read this in the original Spanish, I dare say, but his review carries the tones of disappointment which I share.

Casement comes through displaying a good deal of authentic Englishness, but the Irish characters are not vividly Irish.Authenticity of The Black Diaries, supposedly Casement’s homosexual ravings, is contested, Yeats never believed them, and in my judgment they lack any sense of delicious eroticism, as if they are laundered, so I am another skeptic.

Casement’s execution is the most vivid chapter in the work, with the slave-owner Arana’s gloating letter from South America, with the hangman’s whispered advice to ‘Hold your breath, it will be quicker,’ and his question, tying Casement’s hands, ‘Am I hurting you?’

If all the work were as good as this, the novel would have been very fine indeed.