When, a noble laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, described on the dust jacket as being one of the world’s greatest writers, , takes up his pen on a subject you admire and profess to know something off, then your expectations are naturally extremely high. You anticipate new and penetrating insights into the character of Casement, you expect prose that will set the story on fire and blaze across the page. Unfortunately Llosa,, on this occasion, gives us very little of either. There is not much that is new, let alone insightful, and the writing, although it occasionally sparks, is generally rather damp, not helped by a fairly poor translation.
It was only in the final chapter, chapter15 that the writing really hooks you. It is almost as if this chapter was translated by a different person. It describes Casement’s last few hours in his cell in Pentonville Prison, praying, talking to the guards, talking to his priests, being measured and weighed by the hangman, reflecting on his life, on Ireland. Writing his final letters. It is only here that the writing ceases to be rather stilted, rather ordinary, for a noble laureate, and becomes something special and worthy.The story of Casement in the Congo and in Peru is already well known and has been the subject of several good biographies, notably that of Jeffrey Dudgeon. (reviewed here) Llosa’s contribution fictionalises the story, although at times it is difficult to determine whether he is writing history or writing a novel. The narrative is good, but then so it was in Dudgeon, so it was in Mitchell, so it was in Sawyer. Frankly there are no insights and nothing new. And unfortunately a number of basic inaccuracies, for example putting the trial of Casement into the Old Baily rather than the Royal Courts of Justice. My eBook version of the text also miss numbered the first German submarine upon which, or within which, Casement set out on his journey back to Ireland. Quite a serious error that, for in fact the submarine was the one that a year earlier had torpedoed the Lusitania. When you are accused of High Treason as Casement was, such detail is important.
Casement, as a British Consular official is directed by the British Government to conduct an investigation into atrocities committed by the Belgium Government in the Congo, and later by the British owned Peruvian Amazon Company in the Putumayo region of the Amazon. In each instance the atrocities are associated with the collection of rubber and involve extreme acts of cruelty and sadism against the indigenous tribes. Both tasks are arduous and exceptionally dangerous but are conducted, in each case, with such meticulous care and with such determination that it can rightly be described as heroic. His subsequent reports, both published by the British, made him a notable figure in the anti-slavery movement, earned him a knighthood and international acknowledgement as a leading humanitarian.
His work in the Congo and the Amazon is recalled and retold from his prison cell, for the knight and humanitarian we meet in the story has turned against the British Government, his employer. He has become an Irish revolutionary, he has engaged in treasonable conduct, allied himself with Germany at the time of the Great War and now awaits his sentence of death for High Treason.
His acts of treason, was to seek the aid of the Kaiser’s Germany in the liberation of Ireland. He sought active German military intervention against the British in Ireland. He wanted arms and he wanted German officers to train the Irish volunteers. He wanted and got access to captured Irish soldiers and sought to persuade them to also turn against their employer and to join an Irish Brigade to fight for Ireland’s freedom. Germany gathered together some 2200 captured Irish soldiers for Casement to work on. He succeeded in persuading less than 2% of them to join his enterprise. But it was enough to hang him.
Llosa deals with his notorious black diaries at some length proffering the view that yes they are genuine in that they were written by Casement, and not forged by the British, but they were often Casement’s fantasies about sex rather than actual descriptions of his sexual adventures and encounters. Nevertheless several of his homosexual encounters are described in detail. Fictionalised they may be but they still raise questions about the age of the boys he became involved with.
Casement as a revolutionary was a bit of a failure. On being arrested after coming ashore from a German submarine he was found to have in his pocket a railway ticket, for the previous day, being a one way ticket from Berlin to the German naval base at Wilhelmshaven. Llosa, suggests this error was the result of the stress of all his years in the Congo and the Amazon combined with his life as a revolutionary. Thus Casement is excused. But Llosa also recounts a whole catalogue of serious and compromising errors by Casement. Perhaps the biggest was taking on the sailor he met on the streets of New York, Alder Christensen, as his companion and lover. He took this man to critical meetings with the Irish revolutionary leadership in America, some of them secret meetings. He took him to Germany to meet senior military and political figures. Christensen was a spy. Probably planted by the British but certainly coming within their payroll during his time with Casement. Sawyer described Casement as a flawed hero. Llosa sees not his flaws and when he does he excuses them.
This book then is rather disappointing. However the author is a spectacularly important figure and therefore the book will attract a much wider audience than those that have previously told Casement’s story. It is a fantastic story. Perhaps now, at last, it stands a chance of being picked up and made into the film it so richly deserves.
Sketch of Roger Casement by Mike O’Donnell
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