Friday, July 27, 2012

A Peruvian Writes

“The Dream of the Celt,” by Mario Vargas Llosa, 2010 

Critics are always yapping about Gabriel Marquez and his ‘magical realism.’  Realism that actually buries and hides reality, like transmittals from Plato’s cave, writings for the aesthetic sensors and the political censors.  We get the tail of the elephant only, not the elephant itself.  Llosa, a Peruvian, has no such compunctions.  He is by far the best Latin American fiction writer.  His prose is clean and almost elegant, he tells a great story, and his stories have a point.  A political point, which means he actually cares about the human condition, not just someone’s psychological condition.

Some of the arrows in Llosa’s quiver: “The War at the End of the World,” about a real communist / anarchist insurrection in central Brazil; “The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta,” describes the life of a Trotskyist terrorist/activist in Peru; “Feast of the Goat,” covers the struggle against Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; “Death in the Andes,” an analysis of Sendro Luminoso through the eyes of one of his continuing characters, Litumo; “The Time of the Hero,” his first novel, about students at the military academy in Lima, a book which was banned by Peruvian authorities; “Conversation in the Cathedral,” a serpentine story of intrigue after a right-wing coup in Peru, peopled by dozens of characters and periods of time. 

“The Dream of the Celt” is his latest novel – a novel that removes the curtain from economic colonialism in the Congo and Brazil in the late 1800s and early 20th century, and then links that to the struggle against the British in Ireland.  The book follows the life of disowned Irish nationalist and human-rights hero Roger Casement, who ended being hanged by the British soon after the Easter Rebellion in 1916.  This book ends any speculation about the ‘humanizing’ mission of colonial capitalism. 

Casement is an odd fellow.  He was thrilled by reading about the imperial adventures of Stanley and Livingston in Africa.  He got a job with the Belgians and Stanley himself, a brutal pig, who were ‘developing’ the Congo at the time.  It took years for Casement to understand what was happening around him.  Rubber was the extractive material of the day.  Africans were forced, by gun and whip, not wage, to work for the Belgian King’s company, going into the forest to milk the rubber trees, then bringing the fluids back to the rivers, where they were hauled overland and eventually shipped down river, back to Europe.  Of course, the Congolese could not hunt or grow crops while also tending rubber trees, so men disappeared, villages revolted, the Congolese starved, villages were burned and the Africans eventually became slaves on their own continent, this time enslaved by Europeans. 

Casement began to understand all this, and started to write letters back to England, working with anti-slavery societies and exposing the Belgians.  Eventually he was sent on an official trip by the English government to describe the conditions of the Belgian rubber trade.  He survived because of the British connection, presented his findings to Parliament, and the Belgian companies were denounced and ostracized by the British government.  Casement was a hero, interviewed, invited to make speeches and feted by the liberals of his day.  And all the while, he was still, really, an Irishman. 

It suddenly dawned on him, that, while the brutality the Belgian King showed to the Africans – who they considered sub-human – was extreme; it did not differ in essence from the centuries-long British occupation of Ireland.  Casement started to learn Celtic, and made contacts with the Irish nationalists of the time, all the while working for the British government as an officer of the foreign office.  He also remembered that his mother, a Catholic, had secretly baptized him in the Roman Church when he was little. 

Casement also had another secret.  He was a homosexual in a time when being gay was considered a crime.  He never had a long-lasting affair – it seems the only one he had that lasted for months was with a British spy assigned to inform on him.  Instead, he visited bathhouses, dark bars, parks and swimming holes in the Congo, and later, Brazil. And kept an incriminating diary of these encounters.  This is one reason he has been almost forgotten as a prominent Irish nationalist.

Stories of similar brutal treatment were coming out of Brazil, about a British crown company also involved in harvesting rubber there.  Casement was again sent to Brazil by the British government to discover the truth.  He left with a group, and traveled down the rivers to the bases of the rubber company.  There he documented more whippings, beatings, rapes, starvation, intimidation, child-selling and executions of the native Amazonian tribes, who were being forced to work for free to harvest rubber, and resisted for the same reasons the Africans had.  They were treated like animals, which was the key to justifying their economic exploitation.  ‘Animals,’ after all, are the most inferior beings of all.  Blacks from Barbados were used as foreman to control the Amazonians, and they were the first to step forward to tell what they knew.  Again, modern slavery, covered up by pretty words, lies, legal niceties, prominent people and lots and lots of money.  Eventually, unlike others, he escapes with his life, presents his findings to Parliament, and the Amazonian rubber company is ultimately dissolved. 

Casement by this time is deeply involved with the Irish revolutionaries, from the socialist / laborite John Connolly on down, though he favors the more Catholic, nationalist faction himself.  He believes an armed rebellion at the wrong time would be a mistake, and counsels caution.  Casement’s great idea to aid the Irish nationalist cause is to call on the German government for guns, aid, even troops against the British.  World War I gives Casement the chance to try out this unpopular theory – unpopular even among nationalists.  During the war, he goes to Germany, works with the Kaiser’s generals and is allowed to recruit Irishmen out of the German prison camps.  Only 50 Irish volunteer to work with the Germans to fight for Irish nationhood.  Casement hears about the Easter Rising, and sets out on a German submarine to aid it, with German guns in tow, but no soldiers.  He’s caught, the submarine carrying the guns does not land, and Casement is sent to prison for trial in London.

The rising happens without the added guns.  Hundreds are killed, hundreds arrested, many disappear or escape, and many do not mobilize.  The book ends as a meditation on the wisdom of the Easter Rising, eventually coming down on the side of martyrdom.  Casement himself meets the gibbet a bit later – his own martyrdom, but hung as a double-traitor and a pervert. 

Nothing ‘magical’ about this story.  Only true.

And I bought it at Cheapo Books!
Red Frog
July 25, 2012

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