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Humane . . . but problematic
on 24 June 2013
To start with the problematic part . . . put simply, it really helps if you know quite a bit about Sir Roger Casement and about Irish history from at least 1900 to 1916 before you get into this book. And, of course, the more you know, the more difficult it is to see the book purely in novelistic terms without being bothered by questions about the extent of artistic license and the whole issue of whether or not you "agree" with the characterization of Casement. To a certain extent, Vargas Llosa finesses these questions by presenting Casement as a man who is something of a mystery to himself, someone who is capable of wondering if he really knows what he's doing at certain important passages of his life and is still wondering in the days at Pentonville Prison as he awaits news of his fate at the hands of the British Cabinet -- will he be pardoned? Or will his death sentence for treason be upheld? These days and nights in prison constitute the "present" of the novel. The story of the main events of Casement's life up to that point is presented (in chronological order) as a sequence of memories of the condemned man. In the novel's "present," there are visits from a humane and sympathetic priest, and from his sister and his old friend Alice Stopford Greene, as well as encounters with a jailer who has lost a son in the Great War and who initially is unsympathetic to Casement (whose treason was to seek German help and arms for the Irish cause while Britain was at war with Germany). The main remembered events are of Casement's experiences in the Congo and, later, in Peru, where his sensitivity to the exploitation of the native populations leads him to become the public face of what we would now call a human rights movement. His position as a British diplomat gives him the power to probe abuses and a certain amount of protection as he does so. The treatment of this aspect of Casement's life is the most successful part -- and it's a large part -- of the novel. His investigations into the abuses are vividly told, and Casement emerges as an immensely sympathetic figure as he faces ill-health and other dangers in places hostile to human habitation and to such interference in the lucrative rubber trade as he represents. Casement's investigations were encouraged and sponsored by the British government, and his reports were so effective in publicizing, and to some extent curbing, the abuses, that he was knighted for his work.
That is, the British are seen for much of the book as underwriting a more humane and enlightened attitude to indigenous peoples -- at least as a matter of official policy. And yet Casement comes to connect the mistreatment of these peoples with the "mistreatment" of the Irish by the British, and that connection sparks his desire to help achieve independence for Ireland. Enter (in Casement's memories) all the Irish pantheon -- Pearse, Connolly, De Valera, Tom Clarke, Joseph Plunkett etc. -- and the last part of the novel details Casement's frustrating months in Germany, seeking to form an Irish Brigade from among POWs and to get guns and ammunition, and even a German military intervention in Ireland, while being aware that in Ireland itself, Pearse and Clarke and the rest are planning an uprising without him that he fears cannot succeed without German intervention. When after much foot-dragging, the Germans decide not to intervene (but only to send weapons and ammunition), Casement returns to Ireland to attempt to persuade Pearse and the others to postpone the Rising. He is captured in the west of Ireland and taken to London for trial, where he learns that much of his activity in Germany was known to British Intelligence whose informant had served as an aide and lover to Casement as he planned and executed his trip to Germany.
There is something bothersome to me in the fact that the careful and reflective Casement never critically examines his equation of Irish subjection by Britain with the economic exploitation of the indigenous peoples in the Congo and in Putumayo. We never really understand why he became an extreme nationalist. Memories of his mother, who had him clandestinely baptized as a Catholic when he was a baby, are frequently present to him. She died very young, when Casement was just a child himself, and he has idealized her memory -- but still, one doesn't feel that that's quite enough to explain the commitment to Ireland.
At Casement's trial, famously, his "black diaries" came into evidence, containing accounts of homosexual encounters and causing a broad loss of public sympathy for Casement, who not so long before had been lionized for his human rights work. Vargas Llosa treats these diaries as records of sexual fantasies more than of actual encounters -- as expressive of a desire for human connection and intense experience that perhaps provides a kind of parallel to what he hoped for in his political commitments. Be that as it may -- and it's not a connection that Casement makes -- the novel's interiority is limited to Casement and he comes across as an intensely sympathetic character. So read the book, even if you have to read a bit of Irish history first. Not a great novel but testimony to a fine writer's engagement with a fascinating man.
Follow-up 1, 15 August, 2012. Readers interested in this novel should read Fintan O'Toole's thoughtful review in The New Republic (23 August 2012 issue). O'Toole shares my view that the "colonial" parts of the narrative are particularly effective, but he is highly critical of Vargas Llosa's treatment of Casement's sexuality, and he attributes that treatment to an uneasiness on Vargas Llosa's part about this aspect of Casement's life. In general, O'Toole regrets a failure of imaginative integration in the establishment of Casement's character. He has a point, I think, though, as I said above, I think Vargas Llosa tries to finesse it by making Casement a bit of a mystery to himself. Also -- Vargas Llosa takes at face value Casement's conversion to Catholicism. O'Toole gives us some reason to question that. The review is not a hatchet job, though, and is well worth reading.
Follow-up 2, 13 September, 2012. I've just read a very interesting review of Vargas Llosa's novel in the London Review of Books for 13 September, 2012. The Irish novelist Colm Toibin obviously knows and admires Vargas Llosa's work on the whole, but has some reservations about this novel. He also fills in some of the Congo background -- especially with relation to Joseph Conrad -- and he puts the novel in the context of some other Vargas Llosa novels in very specific ways. Like O'Toole's review, this is well worth reading and maybe even more authoritative.