Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Novel as history and biography

Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, The Dream of the Celt [Faber & Faber, 2012], delves into the history of the colonisation of the Congo and Amazonia as well as the biography of Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist.

Llosa questions the very validity of history many times in the novel.  Most history, implies the novelist, 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” (109-110).

A historical novel may be more accurate than documented history because the novelist looks at the events from a wider and deeper perspective than a historian.  For example, Sir Henry Stanley is portrayed in history as the heroic founder of the Congo Free State.  Stanley, along with David Livingstone, was the ideal that drew Roger Casement to the Dark Continent “in an outburst of idealism and a dream of adventure” (24).

Casement will soon be shocked, however, to realise that “the hero  of his childhood and youth (Stanley) was one of the most unscrupulous villains the West had excreted onto the continent of Africa” (29).  After many years of dedicated service for the natives of Africa and Amazonia, Casement would suffer a blatant distortion inflicted on his character by history. 

Casement understands that the white man’s burden was merely a mask for what in reality was “horrible plundering, ... dizzying cruelty, with people who called themselves Christians torturing, mutilating, killing defenseless creatures and subjecting them, even children and the old, to atrocious cruelties” (88).
The novel is divided into three parts.  The first part deals with the colonisation of the Congo, the second with Amazonia, while the third shows Roger Casement’s struggle for the liberation of Ireland from Great Britain and the tragedy he suffered in the process.

History has witnessed many distortions in all the three cases.  For the colonists, colonialism is the process of bringing light into the darkness of savage existence.  In reality, the civilised white man is more bloodthirsty than the savage, whether in the Congo or Amazonia.  Greed and cruelty are the hallmarks of the colonist.
England has its noble side too.  It honours Casement with knighthood for the great work he did in the Congo and Amazonia by reporting the evils perpetrated by the European colonists.

Soon Casement would be seen as a traitor by the same England.

The evils of colonialism persuade Casement to think that Ireland should not be a British colony.  Casement knew that “Patriotism blinded lucidity.”  He understood clearly what G B Shaw meant when he said, “Make no mistake: patriotism is a religion, the enemy of lucidity.  It is pure obscurantism, an act of faith” (170).  Phrases such as ‘act of faith’ in the mouth of a man like Shaw who was a “skeptic and unbeliever” meant superstition, fraud or even worse.   Yet Casement is convinced that colonialism is an evil in any form, even in the civilised form in which it was practised in Ireland.
Casement who was knighted by Great Britain a few years ago now is condemned as a traitor.  His biography is now distorted.  His diaries are produced (fabricated?) vindicating his homosexual affairs.  Llosa thinks that “Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t” (399 – Epilogue). 

Perhaps the crux of what Llosa wants to show through the novel is expressed succinctly by the novelist himself in the Epilogue: “it is impossible to know definitively a human being, a totality that always slips through the rational nets that try to capture it.”  Llosa’s novel is an imaginative attempt to capture that totality, an attempt that is grounded on solid reality, however.

1.      The page numbers given in brackets refer to the 2012 Faber & Faber paperback edition of the novel.
2.      While I obstinately use British English in my writing, I have retained American English spellings in the quotes from the novel. 


  1. I was gripped by your account of the book, the brief yet telling glimpses that you produced through your review. Those are interesting but profound observations, especially the one about a novelist's perspective of history as opposed to that of an historian.

    1. I'm sure you will like the novel though it may read like a historical work in many places.

  2. Hi Tomichan

    Nice review of the Vargas book - I have not read this author yet. This message has prompted me to go for it.

    1. Glad the review prompts you to read the novel. Llosa has done considerable research before writing this book.

  3. Nice review! History fictions do open the doors of possible arguments which sometimes have to give a miss owing to the lack of artefacts such as the one described in Mira ad Mahatma by Kakkar.

    1. I guess you are referring to the psychologist Kakkar. I haven't read this work on Mira and Mahatma. But I should say I'm more fond of literary approaches to history than psychological ones because having done MA in Psychology (much after doing MA in literature) I feel literary imagination towers far above psychological interpretations. I'm not belittling psychology. Imaginative understanding is quite different from scientifically straitjacketed understanding.


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