In The Dream of the Celt, Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa deals with the issues that clouded Irish nationalist Roger Casement’s life, making of him first hero, then traitor. The author received a Nobel Prize in Literature for this imagined life and it is not hard to see why: these are the same issues that drive the human dilemma onwards. When a person is executed, history tends to recall that individual by final crime, not by preceding acts of goodness. Roger Casement’s life magnifies the discrepancies of this practice. Casement sacrificed his career and health for human rights, bringing to light the heinous oppression of natives of the Congo and the Amazonian rain forest in the Western pursuit of easy profiteering of rubber. For his dedication, he was knighted by the country he served, Great Britain. Intimate exposure to the torture of colonialized people caused inner upheaval, so that he dedicated the remainder of his life to freeing his own people, the Irish, from the rule of their colonizers. The timing was critical. There was only one strong power not allied to Britain, and to that power—Germany—Casement turned during WWI, justifying the means by the end. We can best understand his execution in the light of wartime and the difficulty of forgiveness.
Born in Dublin in 1864, Roger Casement was the youngest of four children. His father was an army captain in whose exotic tales of service in India and Afghanistan little Roger delighted. As a Puritanical military man, Captain Roger Casement did not allow his wife to coddle their offspring. Anne Jephson (who converted to Puritanism to marry), baptized her children Catholics in secret, Roger at the age of four, and lavished affection, likewise, in secret. Secrets, early on, were pivotal to Roger’s reality.
He was the kind of boy to make any parent proud: smart and capable, an athlete who was a great swimmer and could beat children even older than he in races. When Roger was nine years old, his mother died. The trauma of losing his secret love caused temporary loss of speech for the child. Equally consequential was the abandonment by the seemingly strong military father.
The unwritten belief of those who obey rules is that they will be rewarded for so doing, or at the least, not abandoned. The father who had shown no marked uxorious nature fell apart. A child as young as nine might not have drawn the link to love enjoyed and lavished in secret, but an older person, reflecting, would surely. The betrayal and collapse in meaning of Captain Roger Casement Sr, authority figure who had used the whip to punish misdeeds in his children, was on more than one level. He sent his children to their paternal great-uncle, John Casement, and his wife, Charlotte, who henceforth stood in as family and raised the children. The strength behind the whip was sheer façade: Captain Casement Roger went half mad with grief and used mediums and crystal balls to attempt to communicate with his dead wife. John Casement occasionally let these details slip.
Roger Casement lost himself in studies of languages and history, devouring books on foreign lands. He naturally reveled in tales of explorers and adventurers like Henry Morton Stanley, the man who allegedly located the missing altruist, Dr. Livingstone, in Africa. Meanwhile, Casement got a job as a teen in the shipping company in which his Uncle Edward worked. He made a few trips to West Africa and finally relocated there, to labor idealistically for years, believing he was bringing faith, civilization and order to a primitive land.
Roger Casement bought into the myth of Stanley as a Western altruist akin to Livingstone until he actually met Stanley, journeying deep into Africa with him, and witnessing what the latter was doing with his own eyes. In the name of the “humanitarian” King Leopold II of Belgium, to whom western powers at the Berlin Conference of 1885 granted two and a half million square kilometers of Africa after the fact, Stanley “came and went through Africa, on one hand sowing desolation and death—burning and looting villages, shooting natives, flaying the backs of his porters with the chicotes made of strips of hippopotamus hide that left thousands of scars on ebony bodies [ . . . ] and on the other opening routes to commerce.” The kind of commerce was of no benefit to the indigenous people, forced to sign contracts they did not understand and tyrannized for the sake of enriching their far off “benefactors” who were, apparently, unaware of that thugs and gangsters deprived the tribal people of life, limb, food and dignity in order to squeeze every drop of rubber out of the trees.
The whip, symbol of authority, must have eaten at Roger’s psyche once he saw it and what it had wrought. The same instrument used to keep him and his siblings in line by the father who had abandoned and deprived them of much love was being used to subjugate an entire nation. Roger’s report horrified people of conscience in Great Britain and led to his being sent once more to verify the truth of rumors stretching, this time, from the rubber trade in the Amazon. The cruelty he encountered there was, if anything, more horrific.
Novelist Llosa makes absolutely no judgment about the disconnect between Roger Casement’s selfless human rights efforts, frequently putting his own life into grave jeopardy, and the revelation of his alliance with Germany, which Casement sought in an attempt to help the Irish nationalist movement. Casement was arrested at the failed Easter Uprising, which he may, in fact, have been on his way to attempt to quell. At the same time, the “black” diaries, in which Casement wrote of his homosexual and pedophile activities, damned him in the eyes of the public and helped seal his fate.
The Dream of the Celt could not have been written at a better time. Readers, much as those famous individuals who did or did not sign the petition for clemency surrounding Casement’s death sentence—must decide where they stand. If wrongdoing is unacceptable in so great a humanitarian as Roger Casement, what does that say about the rest of us?