Friday, November 26, 2010

El Sueño del Celta

Mario Vargas Llosa's new novel, just published in Spanish,concerns Roger Casement, the Irish anti-colonial activist who later took up the irish cause against the British in World War I, going so far as to overtly collaborate with the Germans. He also was a homosexual, revelations of whose sexual hijinks seriously undermined his plea for clemency when the British decided to execute him for his political activity. Vargas Llosa is not an advocate for Casement, nor obviously does he celebrate all his activities, but he does present him as a fascinating and generally sympathetic figure. 

As my co-edited book indicates, Vargas Llosa is generally seen as of the Right politically; when he won the Nobel, the right-wing mediasphere either was content or faintly annoyed that somebody it felt sympathetic had finlaly own, thus no more griping at the seeming prejudices of the Swedish Academy. This new novel makes clear, though, that, though while Vargas Llosa may favor economic libertarianism and an anti-collectivist vision of society, he is not a moral traditionalist, a political legitimist, or nostalgic for the pre-colonial order, unlike so many on the Right. (Witness the indictment of Obama as 'anti-colonial', an epithet most US Presidents would have worn with pride). Moreover, Vargas Llosa is neither anti-gay nor in sympathy with politico- religious zealotry.

Pp. 448-49 of the novel--where Casements increasing celebration within Ireland is connected to Ireland becoming less dominated by ecclesiastical conservatism-- is a very explicit linkage of (neo)liberalism and anticolonialism, and confirms what have assumed all along about his views on religion and the gay issue. Interesting that Ross Douthat, the conservative NYT columnist, seems to blame Ireland’s break from strict Catholicism for the economic crisis, so in a sense Vargas Llosa is to this extent a 'moderate;. 

EL sueño del celta was much easier for me to read in Spanish than most of his other fiction, this is likely because I know the anterior subject matter well, but still seems a lot more accessible certainly than La casa verde.

The book has three parts: the Congo (early 1900s), Amazonia (circa 1910), and during the First World War and the Irish revolt. The book's middle, the Amazonia section, is very evocative, really brings alive the place (something rather difficult to do to a reader such as me who cannot read the language 'deeply', but even I sense he does it).

Vargas Llosa does take a really anti-colonial stance, which at this point is not controversial except the US Right is full of people saying the British Empire was wonderful; Africa had its finest times under European rule, etc. Even these might say the Belgian Congo is something different (and, indeed, Chinua Achebe makes the point that Conrad’s denunciation of Belgian imperialism actually privileged a more benign British imperialism) but it is clearly Vargas Llosa going to the 'left' again, at least as far as the US is concerned.

With regard to technical/formal considerations--the starting off with the execution scene and then flashing back, fairly conventional by now, but still well done. And the staying in Rogers consciousness virtually the whole time, the narration is not split as in La guerra del fin del mundo and La fiesta del chivo.. The author clearly does not agree with everything Casement does, but alas empathy, stays with him.

Clearly, as with Flora Tristán, the feminist hero of Vargas Llosa's novel The Way to Paradise, the Peruvian connection was the origin, and then he radiated out for the more global stories, it is in a sense of example of how one can be global and local at the same time. 

Funny there is not a  translation of 'Sheriff' into Spanish; I guess the word is so English (with its roots in 'shire') it just cannot be done.

Julio Cesar Arana, the rubber/robber baron of the Amazon,  is not a very positive portrait of a businessman (cf. Jean Knight's article in Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics.

The Crusader analogy on page 27 is interesting in light of what I said in the da Cunha article in Vargas Llosa and Latin American Politics.

In general, I liked the book, and I felt critiques such as that of the usually spectacularly able Gustavo Faverón's slighted it. One might wonder why the author is so interested in Celts (we remember Galileo Gall, the Scotsman in La guerra) but not only is there sympathy for the underdog but perhaps a vestigial memory of the large Celtic admixture of the population of Spain, especially Galicia, named after the Gauls. Vargas Llosa is also quite an Anglophile, though, so the advocacy of Celticity is not polemical.....


Juan E De Castro said...

I think the key "political" passage in the book--which I have to admit I have yet to finish--is found on page 207. Roger Casament is having a conversation with the (rich) rubber tapper Victor Israel about the meaning of civilization. Casement defines it as "a society where private property and individual liberty are respected," a definition that has nothing of surprising in a book by Vargas Llosa.
But what is surprising are the conclusions that Casement and, one assumes, Vargas Llosa derive from this definition: "For instance, British laws prohibit the colonizers from taking over the lands of the natives in the colony.
And also prohibit, under punishment of jail, the use of force against the natives that refuse to work in mines or fields."
Classical liberal values become the basis for a critique of colonialism. One, that I can't help feel, occasionally also implies in its criticism the colonization of Spain. (In particular, the moment when the Peruvian indigenous term curaca, chieftain, is applied to the Congo [106]).

Nicholas Birns said...

And this is in a way very Conradian, as one of Conrad's points in HEART OF DARKNESS is to say "Look how bad Leopold II's personal rule in the Congo is, british bureaucracies working under benign centrist democratic governments can do so much better." Of course, Casement, and, to be fair, Vargas Llosa in representing Casement, do not take nearly so sanguine a view of British orderliness. But the representation of Arana is a pretty tough critique of the business tycoon.