First posting of the new year: happy 2011!
I don’t wish to turn this blog into a space for reviewing but, as happens, I’ve been reading Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del celta (2010) and I do feel the need to vent my deep disappointment.
You may recall from a recent post that I recommended this book –I hesitate to call it novel– as it deals with the fascinating Roger Casement, an Irishman who became a fervent patriot only after witnessing the outrages of colonialism in Congo and Peru. Being Peruvian and, allegedly, an excellent literary writer, Vargas Llosa seemed highly qualified to recall Casement’s story for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking world, where this heroic Irishman is not known. The fact that Llosa is also a conservative, right-wing failed politician and a well-known opponent of nationalism should have warned me that he was a less than ideal choice. Yet, the problem with El sueño del celta is not just its wavering gender and political ideology but, mainly, its flat, insipid writing.
Of course, reading Vargas Llosa’s account of Casement’s sad life so soon after reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness highlights even more Llosa’s limitations as a writer –at least in this particular book, which is my first by him. The atrocities, yes, are more accurately described and the visual impact of what horrified both Conrad and Casement is higher; Conrad’s novella is irritatingly vague and too timid in comparison to what actually traumatised him and indeed a clear case of the limitations of literary representation (yes, he did know and this is what Heart is mainly about). Yet, the beauty of its nightmarish prose is unsurpassable and I suspect that knowing he could by no means match it, Llosa went for the simplest possible Spanish. So bad, believe me, that at points he seems to be translating from English and characters are said to be ‘perdiendo su sanidad’ instead of their ‘cordura.’ Repetitions of events abound as if Llosa felt too lazy to edit them out while characters come and go with little depth of characterisation, as Llosa seems more interested in pouring down all the details he’s learned in his (superficial) research than in building a proper novel. At points, yes, this feels like non-fiction but of the worst kind, nothing to do with Adam Hochschild’s excellent King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) that Llosa knew so well, as he wrote a prologue for the Spanish edition and was the inspiration for El sueño.
I am also wondering whether rather than celebrate Casement as a hero, Llosa is sending out a warning to all those poor misguided souls, queer or not, who fight for the independence of their nations. As you’ll recall, Casement was a former British consul that became involved with the Irish uprising of 1916 and, having conceived the mad plan of asking Germany for help in the middle of WWI, was executed as a traitor. It seems to me that the segments on Congo and Peru do reflect the abuses of colonialism whereas the segment on Ireland completely fails to do so, insisting instead on the poor planning of Irish independence and the ensuing bloodbath. As for Casement’s notorious Black Diaries, which portray in singular detail his many sexual encounters with young men and whose authorship is dubious, Llosa has decided that they are Casement’s but partly a fantasy, as if accepting a gay man as hero was subjected to limiting his promiscuity to tolerable numbers. You might argue that Llosa is here making an effort few conservative writers would make but I doubt this will please many LGTB activists.
All in all, I haven’t learned anything new about Casement that I hadn’t already learned in the afternoon I spent surfing websites about him. Llosa’s research contributes many trivial details regarding location and the characters’ appearance (and health, an obsession) but misses, for instance, the fact that Casement’s report was a British Government Blue Book, calling it the Blue Book, as if this were its title. I’m mystified, though, about the unavailability of this crucial Blue Book on the net, where only an extract can be found. I’d be thankful for tips on the e-text (I know of the print edition by Seamas O’Siochain and Michael O’Sullivan). My impression is that the Black Diaries are much easier to find.
To conclude, whereas in the case of Heart of Darkness I argued the need to bear in mind the ideology of the text and never judge it on its literary merits alone, in the case of El sueño del celta, which raises similar ideological issues, my point is that it fails miserably as a literary text, which is what it should be coming from the most recent Nobel Prize winner… if that means anything at all.