The Dream of the Celt

By Mario Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

With the recent death of the Mexican literary legend and much lauded man-of-letters Carlos Fuentes, and the seemingly endless posthumous output of Roberto Bolaño, it is perhaps time to consider that the great wave (the so called Boom) of Latin American writers---a tide of scribes such as Manuel Puig, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Juan Rulfo---has rippled into streams so different as to no longer recall their initial source. Proof of this disparity of vision and its ensuing variability now comes from Mario Vargas Llosa.

The winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize has turned his considerable novelistic skills to a strange bit of historical writing. The subject of his latest book is Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916), an Irish patriot, poet, and revolutionary who fought for the right of the indigenous persons he encountered in the Amazon and the Congo. Because he decided to get concerned about abuses in Ireland as well, he was stripped of his British honors and executed.

The usually voluptuous prose Mario Vargas Llosa employs in works such as The Perpetual Orgy and The Bad Girl has given way to an icy meticulous restraint of verbs that informs the historical maelstrom surrounding Casement’s plight, his admirable stoicism, and the rumors of homosexual lechery that dogged him. Here the doomed humanitarian contemplates the limits and failures of his empathy:

When the sheriff opened the door to the cell Roger was thinking in shame he had always been in favor of the death penalty. He had made it public a few years earlier... demanding exemplary punishment for the Peruvian Julio Cesar Arana, the rubber king of Putomayo: “If we could at least achieve his being hanged for those atrocious crimes, it would be the beginning of the end of the interminable martyrdom and infernal persecution of the unfortunate indigenous population.” He would not write those same words now.

The Dream of the Celt progresses in flashbacks that aren’t as elegant as what Vargas Llosa’s readers might be accustomed to, but seem to almost advance a method of cinematic grace, a compromise in storytelling directed at serving up scene as swiftly as possible, delivering the erratic mood of the time and mirroring the hectic trials endured by its subject.

In typical Vargas Llosa fashion, readers are given dream, dread, beauty, and a bit of history in the time in takes to be enthralled by the wordcraft of a master.