On my last day in Buenos Aires I had the chance to buy the newly-released novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), by this year’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. The novel had been released the day I bought it and I was able to get it at the last minute before leaving. It’s 451 pages long and I’m still at it.
The celt in the title is real-life Robert Casement, an Irishman whose report on the horrifying conditions of the colonization of the Congo by the Belgians revealed the truth about King Leopold’s fiefdom in Africa.
Carlos Alberto Montaner writes about the novel (spoiler warning),
A big lie that tells a big truth
Why, almost 100 years after Casement’s execution, does Mario Vargas Llosa raise him from his grave and recreate the drama of his life and death? Because the character and his story have all the ingredients of the always opaque human nature, which is what really interests the great Peruvian writer.
Casement is a hero and a traitor. He is an exemplary man, but his sexual preferences, which spurred him cruelly, pushed him toward a type of relationship that was then despised and vilified. He was a lay saint and an inveterate sinner. He was a universal defender of the victims, whatever their color or country, but ended up being a rabid and sectarian nationalist.
Vargas Llosa realized that Casement’s ambiguous life was perfect for the telling. The result is extraordinary.
This is not light reading, and more than once I have had to stop (including during the flight back from Argentina) due to the gruesomeness of the details. However, it is a good novel by a great writer that has a lot to say about the human condition. Read it in the original Spanish, or in the upcoming English translation.