The main job of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in Literature, is reading. However, they are also called upon for one vital piece of writing, summing up the winner’s work in the short prize citation that will be quoted around the globe. In the case of Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 Nobel laureate, the committee commended his depiction of “structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat”.
The judges were clearly thinking of Llosa novels such as Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), which dramatises the Peruvian dictator Manuel Odría, and The Feast of the Goat (2000), which depicts Rafael Trujillo, who seized power in the Dominican Republic. But, spookily, those lines about the individual’s resistance, revolt and defeat could serve as a perfect capsule review of The Dream of the Celt, the first novel the writer has released since taking the prize.
“I know, I know,” agrees Llosa on the telephone from his home in Lima, with one of the enthusiastic cackles that punctuate our conversation. “Absolutely. In a way it is a description of this book. But the Swedish academicians could not possibly have read this book because it wasn’t published.”
The Dream of the Celt is a biographical novel about Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916), an Irishman who served as a British consul in Africa and South Africa, publicising the abuse of indigenous people by rubber companies, before being arrested during the First World War on a boat bringing German weapons to Irish rebels. Casement was convicted of treason and hanged at Pentonville Prison in London, making him a hero of Irish nationalists. In 1965, his remains were returned to Ireland by Harold Wilson’s government.
Casement has inspired previous works of fiction – including David Rudkin’s acclaimed play, Cries from Casement as His Bones are Brought to Dublin (1973) – but those were written from an Irish angle and many will be surprised to find a Peruvian enthused by the story. But the reason that this slice of history has inspired another of the political novels that alternate with Llosa’s more comic and fantastical fictions – including Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), his comedy of age-gap sex and radio soap opera – becomes clear in the sections dealing with Casement’s period in the Amazon, exposing the human rights abuses of the Peruvian Amazon Company. For Llosa, Casement is a Latin American hero: “I think the African experience of Roger Casement is much better known in Europe. But what he did in the Amazon region is equally important.”
The inspiration for his 17th novel came, as often for Llosa, through a collision of literature and politics. “Through reading a biography of Joseph Conrad, who as a writer is very, very important to me, I discovered that the first person Conrad met when he was travelling in the Congo was Casement. Casement was vital in the writing of Heart of Darkness, which is one of the masterworks, so I was curious and decided to investigate. I realised that Casement is a perfect character for a novel. He had a life that was very dramatic but also very mysterious.
“He lived through the great moments of his time. He was involved in colonisation, decolonisation and the discovery of the other – the realisation that the western civilisation was not the only one and that others deserved to be treated with respect. He was one of the first Europeans to denounce colonisation as evil. Until then, there was an idea that colonisation was the way the west brought culture, civilisation, religion and modernisation to the rest of the world – Casement was one of the first Europeans to realise, through experience and facts, that this was a myth and was not the real reason.”
The knight who was hanged
Much of the power of his book, which establishes Vargas Llosa as one of the very few Nobel laureates to have published one of his best works after receiving the prize, is the ambiguities of the central character. Although he died a traitor to the British state and a hero to freedom fighters, Casement started out as a devout servant of the establishment – earning a knighthood – that later hanged him.
“Yes, yes,” agrees the novelist. “What was fascinating in his case was this radical change. When he went to Africa, he was fascinated with the model of the great explorers [David] Livingstone and [Henry] Stanley, the heroes of British youth. But, when he got there, he underwent a radical transformation of his views and values. And this radical conversion of his attitudes occurred in total solitude because he was surrounded by people who truly believed in colonisation. All this gives a moral aspect to Casement that is fascinating to me.”
While the novel is clearly sympathetic to its protagonist, Llosa has always been too thoughtful a political novelist to create easy heroes. Labels such as patriot, traitor, martyr and hero – all applied to Casement from various sides – are beadily examined, an intention signalled in Llosa’s employment of an epigraph from the early 20th-century Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó: “Each one of us is, successively, not one but many. And these successive personalities… tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts.”
Expanding on Rodó’s proposition, Llosa says: “If you explore an individual intimately, you discover the individual is an abyss in which almost anything can find a place. I think Casement is a very eloquent expression of this diversity, these contradictions – the combination of angels and demons that can exist in a human being.”
Canonised by political radicals, Casement was demonised by the British government, which undermined his reputation by circulating among supporters of the condemned man personal journals – the so-called Black Diaries – that contain graphic descriptions of sexual desire and activity involving young men. The status of the diaries remains fiercely debated by historians, with some suspecting that they were character-assassinating forgeries created by the British secret services.
In The Dream of the Celt, Casement himself writes the diaries while travelling in the Congo and Amazon but, in Llosa’s version, they are largely fiction, the masturbatory fantasies of a man unable to enact his sexual desires. “Yes, this is what I think about the diaries,” confirms Llosa. “Because, if you read carefully, it was absolutely impossible that he lived all the experiences he describes there. It is technically impossible. So I think there is testimony but there is also fantastical exaggeration. He put in the diaries the lives he wanted to live but could not. I realise this is a very literary reading of the diaries, although I think there is truth in it. But I think the debate about who wrote them will continue eternally.
“I am very curious about the way in which the Irish people will read the novel,” adds Llosa. “When I went to Ireland, I discovered that there was still a huge controversy alive about him.”
Many writers of Llosa’s age (76) and fame (the literary equivalent of a rock star in Latin America even before the Nobel) either direct diminishing energies into delicate novellas or employ keen undergraduates to do the heavy research for them. Yet The Dream of the Celt spans 400 pages and numerous locations across three continents, all of which the author visited himself. “Oh, yes. I must do the research myself. I very much like to familiarise myself with the environment I want to invent. I do the research at the same time that I am writing the novel and so there is a sort of reciprocal impregnation. The research gives me anecdotes, characters, situations, ideas I can use. I enjoy travelling and interviewing people and, particularly in the case of this novel, following the traces of Casement through Amazon and the Congo. I discovered so many nuances that enriched the character. It was a challenge and hard work because I was dealing with countries such as Congo and Ireland that are very exotic to myself. But it was a worthwhile challenge. I very much enjoyed writing this book.”
Casement’s papers, for example, contain a reference to the sight and smell of the violets on the Irish coast on the morning he was plucked from the German ship. Before writing the scene, Llosa had seen and breathed the same flowers, or at least their descendants. But, though he likes to inhale the atmosphere behind his story, he pointedly gives his Casement a reference to “history, a branch of fable-writing pretending to be science”, a warning to any reader or reviewer wanting to start an argument about whether the book is historically accurate.
“I write novels; I am not a historian,” he stresses. “I love history but I am not enslaved by the historical facts. While trying to be loyal to the basic details, I work with great freedom, taking liberties, mixing invented characters with historical characters. In general, what is invented is much more important than historical memory.”
Peru, politics and power
When I interviewed Doris Lessing three months after she was given the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, she splenetically described the honour as “a bloody disaster” that had robbed her of privacy and time to write. Llosa, though in slightly more diplomatic language, concurs: “The Nobel Prize is one week that is a fairytale and one year that is a nightmare. You receive so many invitations, there is so much pressure to accept honorary degrees, to attend book fairs… and all the publishers want you to go their country. But I defend myself and fight very much because I need time to read and to write. I have a marvellous wife who protects me from the journalists and turns down the invitations. But it is a nightmare to defend my privacy. It has been very hard to write. I travel and try to go to places where I am not known but it is very hard.”
The writer’s career has turned out to be the reverse of his Czech near-contemporary Václev Havel (1936-2011), who failed to win the Nobel Prize but succeeded in becoming president of his country. Llosa was thwarted in the latter ambition when, in 1990, he ran for the Peruvian presidency but – despite his centre-right party being favourites at one point – lost to Alberto Fujimori, who was subsequently convicted on human rights and corruption charges. Llosa’s memoir, A Fish in the Water (1993), contains a melancholic reflection on this reverse, but I wondered if he still has what-if moments?
“I would not have been able to read good literature during the five years of the government. And I would only have written speeches. So they would have been very inferior literary years. But it was a very interesting experience. It was a chance to understand the real politics. You cannot fully understand politics from the library or the television studio. On the street and during a campaign, you see how brutal this fighting for power can be, how ideas and values disappear under this appetite for power. I learned a lot about politics and about myself.”
He agrees that The Year of the Goat – which in my view has some claim to be the best book about the practice of politics ever written – would have been a much inferior novel if he had not held his hand so close to the flame of power. And, although no longer a contender for office himself, Llosa remains involved in politics; in Peru’s most recent election, he supported the winner, Ollanta Humala, against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of his 1990 vanquisher.
Llosa says he has no choice but to remain engaged in his nation’s politics: “It is inevitable if you live in a country, a region, in which the basic problems are yet unsolved. You have to fight because we have democracy but it is very fragile and it could collapse at any time. The threat of dictatorship and populism is always there. So you have to commit yourself if you are committed to these ideas and political values. And another factor for me is that my generation was born to the idea that literature was not only a great entertainment but a civic instrument with which you could fight dictatorship, oppression and social injustice. Today, writers don’t believe that literature can do this. But I remain loyal – though less naively so than when I was young – to the idea that literature can make an impact and have an effect in the social and political realm. And I think this belief is visible in the kind of books I write.”
As the Llosa shelf in public libraries around the world increases with the addition of The Dream of the Celt, the writer’s private shelves are emptying. On the day we spoke, he had just announced that he was giving 30,000 of his own volumes to his home city of Arequipa in Peru.
“I have been thinking for many years what to do with my library afterwards,” he says. “And I have decided I would like it to be in the place where I was born. There are important libraries in Madrid and Peru but not there. It can be useful and it can help people. If, of course, there are still people who want to read literature. And that is a big question now.” Yes, because in 20 years time, there may only be ebooks? “Well thankfully I will not be here. Because I don’t want to live in a world without books. Awful! I would be glad not to be here then.”
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa is out now, published by Faber.