Book review: The Death of the Celt

THE Celt is Roger Casement, the man who exposed the horrors of colonialism in the Belgian Congo and in the Amazon forests of Peru.

A Foreign Office official knighted for his humanitarian work; an Irish Nationalist who tried to raise an Irish brigade from Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany, was arrested apparently trying to run guns into Ireland, charged with treason, found guilty and hanged, in spite of the pleas for clemency advanced by many distinguished people, among them Bernard Shaw. In its determination to ensure that the sentence was carried out, the security services – with the approval of the legal department of the Asquith government – circulated copies of his diaries which recorded in detail his homosexual activities, or perhaps fantasies. There has always been argument as to the authenticity of these diaries.

It is, I assume, Casement’s work in exposing the atrocities committed by the managers and officers of the Peruvian Amazon Company (registered in London) which first drew Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru’s greatest novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, to the subject. His descriptions of the horrors to which ignorant and illiterate native tribes were subjected, as they were employed without pay to extract rubber required to satisfy the greed of Europeans, are harrowing, ghastly examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

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Vargas Llosa has of course had Casement’s official reports to draw on – reports which made Casement a celebrity and which led to the bankruptcy of the Peruvian Amazone Company. But if he has felt free to use all the devices of the novelist – inventing conversations most obviously, and imagining what Casement thought and felt, or at least elaborating the evidence available to him of these thoughts and feelings – one cannot doubt that he is presenting things as they too vilely were. The passages of the novel dealing with Casement’s experiences in the Congo and Peru are utterly compelling. Joseph Conrad, who knew and admired Casement, drew on his work for Heart of Darkness, and it is a measure of Vargas Llosa’s achievement that his book loses nothing in comparison with Conrad’s.

The novel starts in the condemned cell in Pentonville Prison where Casement waits to hear whether he will be granted a reprieve, and then moves back and forward in time. The structure is not complicated but the time-shifts might be awkward in the hands of a less skilful novelist. Starting there ensures that the reader sympathises with Casement – as it is all but impossible not to feel for anyone condemned to death, no matter why.

Like many who commit themselves whole-heartedly to a nationalist cause, Casement was to some extent an outsider, whose years of service in the employ of the British Crown made him an object of suspicion to some Irish nationalists. His father was an Ulster Protestant, his mother English, and, in Vargas Llosa’s version, his commitment to Irish freedom was, in part at least, an expression of the repugnance he felt for colonialism. When, near the end of the novel, an old friend from his African days says: “Between the Congo and Ireland there’s an astronomical distance, it seems to me. Or on the peninsulas of Connemara are the English chopping off the hands of the natives and destroying their backs with whipping?”, Vargas Llosa has Casement reply: “The methods of colonization in Europe are more refined, Herbert, but no less cruel.”

Casement convinces himself that collaboration with the Kaiser’s Germany is the surest way of securing Ireland’s freedom from British rule. Vargas Llosa even has him say that Germany is free from the taint of colonialism, though Casement must surely have heard of the brutal treatment of the Hereros in German South-West Africa. His attempt to use Germany has, for us Scots anyway, a Jacobite ring; he insisted that no rising could succeed if it wasn’t co-ordinated with a German invasion of England – a hopeless pipe-dream. His attempt to persuade Irish prisoners-of-war to join his Irish Brigade was a humiliating failure. Only fifty or so came over to him, and when he addressed the POWs he was howled down. As for his involvement in the Easter Rising, he actually returned to Ireland in an attempt to avert it, believing that without German aid, any attempt was doomed.

Vargas Llosa has written a very fine novel. His Casement is utterly credible, He didn’t seek martyrdom, but tried hard to escape it, before accepting his death with courage and dignity, reconciled to the Roman Catholic Church into which his mother had secretly had him baptised as an infant. Vargas Llosa treats the matter of the diaries and Casement’s unsatisfying but compulsive sex life with good sense, sympathy and a welcome absence of salacity.

The Death of the Celt

by Mario Vargas Llosa

Faber & Faber, 401pp, £18.99