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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.
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on 23 August 2012
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.
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on 12 June 2014
I do not normally like historical novels but this is something special.
Casement, a flawed Irish revolutionary hero, is portrayed,warts and all.
The author pulls no punches in exposing Belgian brutality in the Congo, Peruvian extermination of indigenous peoples in the Amazon,aided and abetted by British capitalism.
The translation is occasionally sloppy and the author's detailed research is slightly tarnished by several references to "Northern Ireland",an entity which only came into being after Partition, several years after Casement's death at the hand's of a British hangman..
But these are quibbles and the novel is a must for anyone interested in Irish history,particularly in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.
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on 4 June 2012
This fictionalised biography of Roger Casement should be one story, as it is the story of one man's life, but strangely it feels like two stories glued together that don't really fit. First there is the story of the man who successfully exposed the cruelty of colonialism in the Congo and in Peru. Especially in the latter episode, where the sheer greed of the (London-based) rubber company fuels a culture of violence and torture against the indigenous workers who harvest the rubber, the theme of corporate responsibility chimes very nicely with today's concerns, and Casement emerges as an undisputed hero. As a dramatic historical development with interesting characters, exotic locations and clear relevance for today's world, this would have made a very nice book on its own, either as a factual or as a fictionalised work.

The other story is Casement's role in the much messier business of Ireland's struggle for independence, culminating in the Easter uprising of 1916. Here he joins the more radical camp of those who don't believe in the promise of autonomy and go for full independence, even if it takes armed conflict to achieve it. Even more controversially, at the beginning of World War I, he tries to forge an alliance with Germany. In the end, however, he wavers and wants to call off the uprising, while a shipload of weapons from Germany is already on its way and cannot be contacted. Under circumstances that are still debated, the arms delivery finds no recipients at the arranged rendez-vous, Casement gets arrested, and the uprising fails. He is sentenced to death, and his appeal is quashed amid the revelation of homosexual adventures detailed in his "black diaries."

Vargas Llosa tells the whole life story in long flashbacks remembered by Casement in his final days in Pentonville prison. On the highly controversial issue of the diaries, he assumes that they are genuinely Casement's writing, but that some of the events recorded are imaginative extrapolations of more innocuous beginnings, rather than precise records of a steamy (and at that time illegal) love life.

I mainly read the book because of the Irish part of the story (because of a family connection), but found that part of the book less engaging than the Congo and Peru story. I wasn't getting much of a sense of place of Ireland, or a sense of why Casement became so obsessively nationalistic. So maybe - memo for anyone who wants to make a film out of this - I might have focused on the colonial locations a bit more, covering only as much of the Irish tragedy as is necessary to explain his fall from grace and ultimate execution.
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on 5 August 2014
Mario Vargas Llosa seems to have a thing about Celts. In his novel "The War at the End of the World", based on the 19th century revolt set in the Brazilian state of Bahia, one of the main characters is a Scotsman although how "Scottish" he is is debatable.

This book also shows little genuine insight into the mind of the "Celt" as the hero, Sir Roger Casement, was actually a product of the Anglo-Irish upper class, a Protestant from Ulster and loyal servant of the British Empire until he finally saw the light.

I assume Llosa's interest stems from the period in which Casement was a British diplomat and spent time in Llosa's native Peru, uncovering the appalling treatment of the indigenous people by a British rubber company, just as he had previously denounced similar scandals in the Congo.

Casement ended up allying himself with Germany in the First World War, was captured and executed as a traitor although he no longer regarded himself as British. He is now regarded as a hero in Ireland.

However, Llosa merely repeats the main biographical details of his life, with some rather superficial references to his religion, sexuality etc.

He does not even give any sources in his Acknowledgements although he must have used works by writers like Brian Inglis.

What we end up with is a partial account of his life and not a work that could be considered as a novel.

In conclusion I would make a comment on the translation which, although good overall, is at times just too literal and pitched at an American readership e.g. calling a prison warden a "sheriff", the mayor of a town a "prefect", an American a "North American" and not even bothering to translate a local term like "rationals" to describe the overseers in the Amazon.
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on 23 March 2016
One of Vargas Llosa's best works. Don't be put off by the fact he is nearing the end of his career. Don't be put off by the fact this is a Peruvian writing about British / Irish history. It's very readable, moving, engaging and well researched.

Most of the book deals with Casement's life spent in the Congo and the Amazon uncovering atrocities, but as lengthy flashbacks alternated with his time in a cell in Pentonville prison awaiting execution. It works really well.

A major flaw is that once you get to the third section of the book ("Ireland") it really feels like Vargas Llosa has run out of creative steam and is just arbitrarily and drily working through the last part of the story. You could just skip most of this section and go straight to the final chapter of it, it would make for a better read and you wouldn't really miss anything you couldn't read in a history book.

Some reviewers complain about the translation, but having read it in the original Spanish the complaints are unfounded. FOr eample, the use of the word sherriff - it's there in the original in English, italicised. Maybe Vargas Llosa did his research and this word was actually in use in England in 1916. Or maybe he got it wrong. But it's not the translator's fault!
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on 3 August 2014
Google Translate?

Plenty of reviews already, enough said, if Vargas Llosa writes it, I will read it. However the translation is the worst I can remember for an important literary work. The authors epilogue mentions the the Church of the Saved Heart. It's the Sacred Heart, you fool. Adjunct for Adjutant. Too many by far; it should not matter, but if the text has not been rendered properly, what's the point?

Sheriff, Maitre....?
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on 3 September 2012
This is the biographical story of the real Irishman Roger Casement by the noble winning Llosa. I have read all of Llosa's other novels and rate his work very highly indeed particularly liking `War of the end of the world' and `Notebooks of Don Rigoberto'. I enjoy the fictionalisation aspects of his works but often find myself slightly annoyed by not really knowing at the end, fact from fiction.

It is clear from the other reviewers that they know much of Casement and Irish history making observations about accuracy of the book etc; now I have never heard of Roger Casement or his involvement in British colonial or Irish history; so is reading, for me, an educative yet fictionalisation a good idea?

Well this tells the story of an Anglican Irishman (born 1864, baptised secretly into the Catholic faith by his mum) turned diplomat in the period 1870s. He famously visits the Congo (1903) and then the Amazon (1906) detailing on behalf of the British government (he is knighted for his work `a Sir' which later become a difficult label for a republican Irishman) the abuse of indigenous people to deliver latex to the going rubber market by rich, powerful (both locally and nationally) greedy men. The depiction of the sheer torture of the poor workers treated literally worse than slaves is graphic and very thought provoking (whips, starvation, cheating of the quotas, murder, caging, horrific punishments, child killing, town genocide etc) - how anyone responsible could sleep at night was my most constant thought - the only bright-side being that ultimately the international community from Casement's work stop the trade. These periods are framed as retrospectives from prison because Casement is actually now in prison for treason associated with his republican ideal for Ireland; he is awaiting a possible reprieve - even I could see that Casement's engagement with Germany during WW1 to help facilitate a British defeat (through an advance of the Irish Easter Rising) would never get such. Another interesting aspect of the book (which is possibly released at the time to assist his demise) is that it appears that Casement was also gay, fanaticizing over and possibly engaging with, nubile natives etc - this was both challenging at the time in 1910, to himself being religious, and possibly even now depending on the age of blokes.

I really found myself reading the book as a proper biography rather than fiction and enjoyed it as such. One could not really however understand why Casement became so republican - I was expecting some sort of comparison of the treatment of the Irish at a point in their history (such as the Potato famine when basically again rich, powerful greedy men are involved). Admitting my historical ignorance overall here: I did find reference to the `English' parliament slightly irritating; it was not just the English who fought against Turkey in WW1; and to be honest I found myself seething when Llosa allows Casement not to foresee the British "reprisal" in not continuing to pay the Irish families the wages of Irish POWs choosing to effectively join the German side.

So overall I can recommend the book but I can only credit it 3 stars and the main reason I think is that whereas Llosa chooses and enjoyably shows Casement `a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man is many men, which means angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality', Llosa did not quite manage to have the same balance for the countries (Ireland, Britain and Belgium, comprising of such `men') involved. Also I think as a fictionalisation it was far too detailed (dates, places, people etc); more fiction around Congo and Brazil with a short finale of his hanging for treason might have worked better for me.
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on 24 September 2014
This novel draws one directly into the heart of darkness that was colonialism as seen through Roger Casement's eyes in Leopold's Congo empire and also that of the London based Peruvian Amazon Company. These experiences as a British Diplomat, became the springboard for Casement's involvement with the Home Rule for Ireland and his attempt to stop the insurrection in Dublin in 1916, which he considered to be futile in achieving liberty for the whole of Ireland. It is a moving and powerful story centered upon a complex and sympathetic protagonist. The translation is magnificent and I found the experience one I strongly recommend to other reader with unreservedly.
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on 2 January 2015
This in by a Nobel prize winning author.It has fine writing.I learnt more about the spiritual significance of the Easter (Holy Week) rising in Dublin in 1916,and how it involved sacrificing intellectuals in the hope that this would lead others to rise up in the struggle for independence.The rising was deliberately centred on the postoffice,rather than say the castle,for symbolic purposes.Places of significance in the rebellion,or focal points of resistance,such as a shop,are recorded.The death of Sir Roger Casement is sensitively described.
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