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GIANT FERNS

The dream of the celt By Mario Vargas Llosa, Faber, Rs 499

Roger Casement, said Yeats, “did what he had to do.” But what did he do? We know that he was a fanatical Irish nationalist who traversed continents to get the help of the Germans for the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916. He did this when England was at war with Germany, and so he was hung for treason in London. But the Empire had knighted him before it sentenced him to death. Casement’s consulship in the Congo, together with subsequent investigative trips there and to Putumayo in the Peruvian Amazonia, resulted in two famous reports that brought to the notice of the West the atrocities being committed in these “realms of gold” by some of the most powerful and avaricious representatives of the civilized world. Joseph Conrad had felt “deflowered” after meeting Casement, the novelist’s eyes opened by the Irishman, as if for the first time, to the horrors of the Congo.

Yet, lurking somewhere at the heart of Casement’s most eminent deeds are darker ones that elude historical verification, and should be, therefore, particularly alluring to the fictional imagination. While serving his last prison sentence, his diaries were found and widely publicized by the British authorities, turning the tide of opinion more virulently against him when his compatriots petitioned for mercy. The diaries had numerous entries describing fairly extreme homosexual encounters with younger and not-quite-respectable strangers (including Peruvian and Congolese boys), usually in exchange for money. Yeats, together with many others at the time, believed that these entries were forged; “The ghost of Roger Casement/ Is beating on the door,” the poet had imagined.

Yet, Yeats’s “he did what he had to do” seems to be able to accommodate, though uneasily, other possibilities of reference — compulsions driven by energies that may not have been purely nationalistic. The duplicities that Casement embodied were as difficult to contemplate for the sympathetic as for the punitive imagination, as the sexual shadowed the political in his discomfiting double life.

The ghost of Casement has been beating on the door of Mario Vargas Llosa’s imagination for a while now. In a reverential essay of 2001 on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Vargas Llosa mentions, as Conrad’s like-minded contemporaries, Casement and the human-rights journalist, Edmund Morel, who wrote a series of articles “mobilizing international public opinion against Leopold II’s butchery in the Congo”: “Both deserve the honours of a great novel,” writes Vargas Llosa.

The Dream of the Celt is that novel, with both Conrad and Morel featuring as characters who bear in the arc of their relationships with Casement the brunt of the ambivalence of his politics and life. Conrad recalls Casement, in the year of the latter’s trial, as “a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion…A creature of sheer temperament — a truly tragic personality: all but the greatness of which he had not a trace. Only vanity.” Morel, too, withdrew his friendship during the last few months of Casement’s life.

Vargas Llosa’s Casement is the fruit of years of historical research, and of geographical and literary stalking. Yet he, together with the 400-page novel painstakingly built around him, remains curiously “of no mind at all” — though not in Conrad’s sense of the phrase. The novel elaborates itself copiously at the threshold of a life and personality that is never quite crossed by the novelist. In the wealth of biographical and historical material that it gathers around its subject, The Dream of the Celt amply counters Conrad’s cautious assessment of Casement’s life as all tragedy and no greatness. But, it is this very abundance of information and background — a thick, dense curtain of names, dates and descriptions, swollen by gusts of humanitarian feeling — that prevents us from imagining into Casement’s layered and listless life and creating for ourselves a sense of his incarnated existence in history.

This is, indeed, a pity. Vargas Llosa’s essay on Heart of Darkness had admired, and profoundly understood, the terrifying power of Conrad’s art of presenting his human and inhuman materials through a “mist of subjectivities”. Vargas Llosa reads Kurtz as “a hidden piece of information, an absence rather than a presence”, while Marlow, to him, is an “anonymous and furtive presence whose function is to blur the story”. The absence, the mist and the blur together create, in Conrad’s novel, a phantasmagoric narrative that becomes the stuff of both colonial history and psychological realism, yet remains close to the inscrutability of actual, untransfigured horror. It is a process that Vargas Llosa made splendidly and variously his own in novels like The War of the End of the World (1981), The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984) and The Feast of the Goat (2000).

What the overloaded documentary style of this novel is particularly unsuited to handling is the mysterious hinterland of entries like this from Casement’s diaries, now proven to be authentic: “Very beautiful and enormous. I followed him and persuaded him. We kissed hidden by the giant ferns in a clearing. He was mine, I was his. I howled.” Vargas Llosa’s way out of the difficulty of reconciling this promiscuity with the highmindedness of Casement’s nationalism and humanitarian convictions is to suggest repeatedly that most of Casement’s self-recorded sexual encounters were unrealized fantasies. Casement, to rephrase Yeats, could not, or would not, do what he would have liked to do. Vargas Llosa thus elevates his subject to a double martyrdom at the expense of the actual challenge posed by these inconvenient contradictions. Casement “wrote the famous diaries,” he says in the Epilogue, “but did not live them, at least not integrally.” There are aberrations harder to integrate with the idea of the human than the horrors of colonialism.