Updated: September 2, 2012 21:31 IST

Fictional histories, historical fictions

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The Dream of the Celt is proof that if history is mostly idyllic fabrication, art can aspire for better portrayal of the chaos of ‘reality’.

Accentuating the close link between fiction, history and politics, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa elaborates: “In countries where nothing is settled, where basic decisions are still uncertain, I think that pushes writers to be much more engaged in political matters — as they were in Europe in the 19th Century”. This concern with political history compels Llosa to dwell on the notion of rewriting history, an endeavour at a revisionist programme that exposes the lie behind imperial histories. As the narrator in his new novel The Dream of the Celt maintains, history is a “more or less idyllic fabrication, rational and coherent, about what had been in raw, harsh reality a chaotic and arbitrary jumble of plans, accidents, intrigues, fortuitous events, coincidences, multiple interests that had provoked changes, upheavals, advances, and retreats, always unexpected and surprising with respect to what was anticipated or experienced by the protagonists”.

In an earnest search for realism through the artistic portrayal of history and myth, Llosa stands as one of the most important contemporary novelists. A Peruvian social activist, he emerges in his novels as a writer of romance and seduction which engages the reader in colonial history. The Dream of the Celt, translated recently into English, takes up the strange life of the Irish political activist Roger Casement, the man responsible for the exposure of the corruption in European companies in the Belgian Congo and Peruvian Amazon region. The milieu of the novel resounds with disappointed dreams for a more flourishing colonised world within the murky world of decadence, impoverishment and terrorism. Western presence in Congo was indeed barbarism cloaked as civilisation. Llosa has always believed that “humans must resist (tyranny), especially at the beginning. Later it is harder to resist once the system is in place. But it is always possible”.

Deadly irony

The irony of Casement’s life was to be first knighted by the British for exposing the colonial nightmare in Congo and the Amazon and then to be executed for treason. The novel meanders through scenes of his long wait for execution and the varied hopes and desires of his past. Employed in a British company at the age of 20 in the Congo region, he had dreamt of a more prosperous Africa where modern amenities of schools, hospitals and roads would facilitate the process towards modernisation. But what he saw shattered his vision of a happier and progressive Congo. The western ideology of the ‘civilising mission’ turned out to be a mere camouflage for a heartlessly exploitative imperial enterprise that would leave thousands of Congolese dead or mutilated and women raped. This nightmare of violence against the natives was impelled by the European greed for economic gain from the rubber plantations in Congo. If you did not collect enough rubber daily, your sexual organs would be sliced off.

Casement returned to England to submit his scathing review of economic exploitation and bloodshed in Congo. The impact of this report was so intense that he soon became a celebrity in the British diplomatic circles. This lead to his posting to Peru where he saw the “same horrors being repeated, with minor variations, inspired by greed, the original sin that accompanied human beings from birth, the hidden inspiration of their infinite wickedness”. Llosa describes in horrific detail natives being forced to work like slaves, women raped, ears, noses hands chopped. Interestingly, Joseph Conrad, who also makes an appearance in the novel, first met Casement in Congo in 1889 and shared the disillusionment with European civilisation which provoked him to write Heart of Darkness. Sadly, despite the friendship between them, no support from Conrad was forthcoming against the indictment of Casement, for, he regarded treason most unpardonable.

The downfall

The violence in Peru is exposed in the report Casement submitted to the British Government before he turned his attention to Ireland following a dream where he experiences the joy of Ireland attaining freedom from British domination. Casement had begun to believe that it would only be possible to win freedom for Ireland if he enlisted the support of Germany. He visited Berlin to get arms for the rebellion but abruptly returned to Ireland to stop the Easter Rising (1916) only to be arrested and executed for treason. Conrad, in his attack on Casement, had indeed overlooked the fact that he had sincerely returned to Ireland to put down the bloody uprising and thus was not guilty of treason.

Llosa’s story of this great human rights activist moves between the private and the public life of Roger Casement, elaborating his innumerable homosexual encounters with young native boys. Llosa is sympathetic to this long-forgotten nationalist, taking his biographical details to expand upon more significant issues of exploitation and the scourge of free market economy. The ascending bourgeoisie and the constant struggle between the civilised and the barbaric marks the overall character of this novel. Llosa’s interest in the structures of power with all the deeply provocative images and descriptions of resistance and subjugation, of decadence and impoverishment, of terrorism and pain are juxtaposed creatively with the true picture of a hero, his political involvement as well as his desires and longings in the dark world of the Congo and the Amazon. His aesthetic quest becomes one with his political concern, linking the continuing disempowerment of the marginalised with the deep-seated critical self-awareness of history and native reality. To him these are his sources for political, economic and cultural revolution.

On putting down the novel, what remains in one’s mind is the reality of many African nations doing more damage to their own people than any imperialist colonisation. One is not condoning imperialism, but a predominant feeling would linger that this murder, rape and terrorism prevalent even today, as we speak, really calls for another humanitarian intervention.

The Dream of the Celt, Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman, Farrar Straus Giroux, p. 358, $27.

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