The Dream of the Celt

Author Mario Vargas Llosa.
Author Mario Vargas Llosa.

Mario Vargas Llosa,
Faber, $29.99

There are two remarkable things about The Dream of the Celt, the novel about Sir Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist leader who was executed by the British in 1916: one, that it has been written before, and two, that it is not better than it is.

Its writer, the Nobel prize-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, has as high a reputation as any novelist alive. His previous novel, The Bad Girl, about a man's obsession with a femme fatale, was a ravishing performance. In this novel, he undertakes to fictionalise the extraordinary story of Roger Casement who, having been knighted for his devastating reports on the atrocities committed against the colonial subjects in the Belgian Congo and Peru, colluded with the Germans in Ireland's Easter Rising.

He was sentenced to death and, to quell the agitation for clemency and to sully Casement's reputation, the British government released the so-called ''black diaries'', which detailed Casement's homosexual encounters with black boys. These were widely thought to be forgeries.

Although The Dream of the Celt is fluently translated by Edith Grossman, you get little sense of familiarity with the complexities of the Anglo-Irish tangle or, indeed, of the formidable and, in some ways, inscrutable figure Vargas Llosa has taken as his subject.

Of course, it's wrong to treat a novel by Vargas Llosa as if it were a biography, but the funny thing about The Dream of the Celt is that it reads a bit like a life with the dramatic, or even anecdotal, bits left out.

The trouble is that the Irish situation is so rich a subject for Vargas Llosa it seems to limit his capacity to imagine.

He details the sexual encounters with the boys and says in an afterword that as a novelist he takes the diaries as authentic but expressing more fantasy than fact. The narrative is more likely to jolt into life in the presence of sex, or in the particular instances of Casement's last days in prison - as when he gradually kindles sensitivity from a pitiless jailer - but most of the time, there is just a welter of detail without a shapely characterised protagonist.

To a weird extent, you're likely to find yourself skimming or blanking out with The Dream of the Celt. It's a bit like an absent-minded, but overly detailed, treatment for a historical novel Vargas Llosa was somehow unable to write. What we have is a documentary work of faction by a great master in feeble form. Strange though it sounds, there will be more drama and colour in any good biography of Casement.

This story The Dream of the Celt first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.