Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Casement .... and Booker

A non-working left hand has kept me away from my laptop for nearly a month now - apologies!   No doubt everyone has been pondering the Booker Short List - well, ponder no more.   There are only two really worth your time [and hopefully the judges' time too!] and thats Will Self's Umbrella which is a totally brilliant book and the most exciting to appear on the English literary scene for a long time.   I shall review it later.   The second book that is both interesting and thought provoking is by a new author, Alison Moore, The Lighthouse and if Self's amazing tome is rejected, this might be a worthy winner.

But first I want to tell you about The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa.   This is a fictional account of Roger Casement's life [or is it factional?].   I was lucky enough to get to see and hear Llosa when he was in Dublin recently for the Literary Festival.   Following his reading, he was questioned widely about different incidents in Casement's life and his general reportage and I felt he finally got a little annoyed by the seeming refusal of his audience to accept that this was a 'novel' and not an historical document.   Sadly I am not sufficiently conversant with the detail of Casement's life to know to what extent Llosa is creative with it but the historians who have reviewed it appear happy with the detail of Casement's career though of course that is well established.   Though once an attempt is made to explore the mind of the man, his demons and struggles, his hopes and despairs, then one is truly in the realm of fiction. 

Casement was an extraordinary man, a human rights campaigner and a fierce opponent of the evils of colonization before Albert Memmi was born!   His horror at the evils perpetrated on the natives in the Congo, Amazonia and Peru resonate loudly with our generation familiar with the Court of Human Rights and the fall out from Nuremberg but he was well ahead of his times and though knighted for his work in these regions, his opinions raised eyebrows in many circles at the time.   Alison Ribeiro de Menezes who reviewed the book for the Irish Times is guilty of a category error in lamenting that Llosa makes no 'truly searching critique of Casement’s contradictory positions or of his unthinking mixing of human rights with nationalism' as Casement saw no conflict between the rights of self determination for the natives of the Congo and those of Ireland.   Nationalism was a relatively new political movement at the time, before the Great War, and human rights as a discipline did not exist.

Llosa deals in a new way with the infamous Black Diaries.   Though they are referred to mostly by innuendo in the course of the novel, they only come up strongly at the end and, in fact, he writes about them in an Epilogue to the book saying, that as a novelist, it is his impression that 'Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not interally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn't'.   This appears to be  a happy conclusion.

The book itself is simply constructed with separate chapters for his journeys to the Congo, to Amazonia and Peru interspersed with chapters chronicling his final days in Pentonville Prison when he agonises not only over the failed Rebellion and execution of the leaders and his own failed role therein but also his time in Germany when he attempted to put together a brigade of Irish prisoners of war to fight alongside the Germans.   Llosa also deals in some detail with Casement's religious angst.   Apparently, his mother had him secretly baptised a Catholic and now with death approaching, he turns to the prison Catholic chaplain, Fr Carey, searching for both an intellectual and physical peace.

Fascinating as the book is, sadly I don't feel Llosa is at his best here and were it not for an intense interest in the man, Casement, I might have lamented the style and uneven writing so uncharacteristic of the great Nobel winning author of The Feast of the Goat or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Dream of the Celt published by Faber can be easily obtained in trade paperback post free from bookdepository.co.uk 


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