The Dream of the Celt

Written by Edith Grossman (trans.) Mario Vargas Llosa
Review by James Hawking

The opening chapter presents Roger Casement under a sentence of death for treason because of his efforts to recruit Irish POWs to fight alongside Germans during WWI. He had been captured before the 1916 Easter Rebellions after arriving in a German submarine in connection with a failed effort to bring arms to the rebels.

Scenes in the prison cell alternate with flashbacks of his career, beginning with his courageous efforts to expose the inhumane practices the Belgians used to collect rubber in the Congo. His success in doing so led to his being decorated by the British government and an assignment to report on even worse abuses in Peru. He gradually became an Irish nationalist, equating British control of Ireland with the other colonial abuses. From time to time he has sexual encounters, usually paid, with young men, recorded and even exaggerated in his diary. The government releases these diaries to counter the clemency petitions.

Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for this historically accurate novel, an outstanding example of how fiction can teach history and deepen its impact. Casement was perhaps the most famous Irishman of his day, but his story will be new to many modern readers. Edith Grossman’s translation from the Spanish will make this complicated history of brutality and heroism available to the English-speaking world in elegant prose. Highly recommended.