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The Power of Deception: A Review of The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

By Sophy Kohler for The Times:

In The Dream of the Celt, Mario Vargas Llosa skilfully reimagines the life of Roger Casement, one of the most controversial heroes of Irish nationalism.

The novel opens at the end of Casement’s life: he has been charged with high treason for his alleged involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising and is awaiting execution in London’s infamous Pentonville Prison, known as “The Ville” and previously home to such inmates as Oscar Wilde.

Switching between the past and present, Vargas Llosa takes us on an adventure across several continents, documenting Casement’s time as a British ambassador and his later years as a fierce advocate for Ireland’s independence from Britain. Casement’s innocence is clear. Through Vargas Llosa’s retelling, we are forced to concede that the execution is not only unjust, but also the result of the cracks that happen to history while it is being made.

Casement, kept in the dark by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, only learnt of the rising shortly before it was to take place. He had travelled from Germany to Ireland, risking his life, to prevent the rising from happening.

He is hanged because those telling the official story, those with the power, choose the easy, rational and distinctly false narrative over the chaotic and complicated, accurate one.

That Casement should meet his end as the result of deception, does not come as a surprise. Vargas Llosa highlights his protagonist’s romanticism and his capacity to be taken in by the devil, who comes in many disguises.

In the Congo, it is his fascination with his childhood hero, Henry Morton Stanley; in Europe, it is in the “Viking god”, Eivind Adler Christensen. For Casement, both Stanley and Christensen come to represent mankind’s capacity for duplicity. Through close encounters with those figures, Casement realises he has been deceived by colonialism’s false promises of benevolence and progress.

It is that realisation that develops and strengthens his belief in the emancipation of Ireland.

Casement eventually rejects the British Crown, despite having been knighted for his humanitarian efforts, and wants to “make up for lost time” on his new project, Ireland’s secession from Britain.

The title of the novel denotes the fantasy into which Casement increasingly retreats and which ultimately leads to his downfall.

While the protagonist of The Dream of the Celt is implicitly a hero, Vargas Llosa does not omit any of the darker aspects of his lead character’s story.

The Dream of the Celt is an impeccably researched and thorough novel of history.

~ ~ ~

Kohler is a reviewer for Books LIVE. The Dream of the Celt, translated by Edith Grossman, is published by Faber and Faber.

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