Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Dream of the Celt" is an elegiac and moving fictionalization of the career and death of the troubled Irish Martyr and British traitor Roger Casement.
Casement was born in 1864 in Co Antrim into a Protestant Irish family. He spent most of his career as a loyal and honored - knighted in 1911 - servant of the Crown. He rose to the rank of consul and achieved international fame for his exposés of the atrocities perpetrated in King Leopold's Congo and the Putumaya region in Peru. He was on visiting terms with foreign secretaries and his prominent friends included Yeats, Conrad, Conan Doyle, the sculptor, Herbert Ward, the campaigning journalist E.D. Morel and the historian Alice Stopford Green among many others.
Beneath his official mask, Casement was an ardent Irish nationalist .The seeds of this may have been sown by his parents, both of whom died while he was young: his mother had him secretly baptized as a Roman Catholic while on a visit to Wales; his father, in a down and out phase, flirted with violent nationalism. Eventually, Casement went to Germany - then at war with Great Britain - in an attempt to form an Irish Brigade along the lines that he had witnessed in the Boer War and to persuade the Kaiser to synchronize an invasion of England with an Irish revolt. He failed in both of these objectives but did secure an arms shipment timed to help the Easter Rising of 1916 (which he himself unsuccessfully opposed for logistical reasons). The British intercepted the guns and Casement. He was tried in London, convicted of treason in a surprisingly technical trial and sentenced to hang.
Casement's supporters were optimistic that the British cabinet would commute his sentence. This became impossible, however, when the government leaked excerpts from what became known as his "Black Diaries." These documented a secret life (and financial reckoning) of homosexual cruising, usually involving sex for money, often with "natives" and frequently with minors. This was 21 years after Wilde's downfall and almost two full decades before the Earl of Beauchamp, an acquaintance of Casement, fled in disgrace to the USA, prompting the king to mutter: "I thought that men like that shot themselves." Casement was duly executed and his full acceptance into the pantheon of Irish martyrs was delayed for several decades. For many years there were claims and counterclaims that the diaries were forged. They are now generally judged to be authentic. Vargas LLosa offers the view in his epilogue that they were written by Casement, but that the content is a mixture of fact and fantasy.
Vargas Llosa's "The Dream of the Celt" - the title is taken from Casement's own for a collection of not very good poems based on Irish mythology; Casement himself was hardly a Celt - is a superb and largely historically accurate recreation. From his toolbox of styles, he selects a straightforward narrative approach. The "now" is anchored in Casement's last days in Pentonville Prison with long flashbacks filling in the balance of his life. There are, it must be said, quite a few passages so crammed with facts that they resemble entries in Wikipedia rather than the output of a Nobel laureate, but for the most part the writing is evocative and well translated by Edith Grossman. The passages set in Africa and Peru are the strongest, thick in atmosphere and humanitarian warmth. The Germany and Ireland phases are less well covered - the former is rather superficial and the latter may miss the full conflict of loyalties of a nationalist leaning, non Scots Presbyterian, Protestant Ulsterman of the time.
In presenting Casement - whom he refers to throughout as "Roger," though with a respectful rather than patronizing tone - Vargas LLosa maintains a reverent distance. We observe Casement intimately from above rather than from the inside. Casement himself, in the novel, speaks of his "permanent contradiction." Vargas LLosa does not attempt to explain the complexities and contradictions but builds up his portrait layer by layer. He hints at times that there might be some explanation in Roger's yearning for his lost mother, but for the most part leaves it to the reader to judge.
Casement is portrayed as a man of great physical and moral courage and humanitarian instinct. Even in prison, he is able to show compassion for the sheriff (the correct title for the chief gaoler at Pentonville, though how Casement's lawyer acquired the French title of Maître, I have no idea - it's in the original Spanish as well) who treats him with contempt.
The subject of the Black Diaries is introduced slowly. Casement's visitors gently mention the rumors; he is non-committal, saying only that he has not seen them. Gradually, the flashbacks expand to include his lecherous observations and his actual cruising, "paseo" in the Spanish. Casement recalls these instances but without the shame that might have made other men welcome the gallows. Instead, it is almost as if it were another self at work, part of a complex of compartmentalization that could also allow loyal service to Britain and passionate hatred of the English to co-exist. Casement's execution, when it comes, seems less a punishment or a release, than a natural output of his complex character.
Casement is a perfect subject for Vargas Llosa who is drawn to flawed heroes, and Vargas LLosa is a perfect chronicler for Casement. His book shows that it is possible to be a secular saint (Yeats' "mystic martyr") without being a perfect human being, and that it is possible to respect someone without approving of all or even much of what they have done.
PS: for readers who would like more on Casement, I recommend Jeffrey Dudgeon's "The Black Diaries," published in 2002. This contains a wealth of biographical and contextual research and is written with a wry sense of humor.