Losing in Literature—Winning in Human Rights

Is it possible to fail aesthetically but succeed ethically? I thought of this question as I read Mario Vargas Llosa’s recent The Dream of the Celt, published in 2010, the year he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and now available in English.

Vargas Llosa writes about Roger Casement, the Anglo-Irish diplomat (1864-1916), who was knighted for his campaign against human rights abuses by the rubber barons in the Congo and Peru but who was executed as a traitor for his support of Irish nationalism in WWI.

Historically based, Vargas Llosa’s work is written as a journalistic chronicle of Casement’s life, particularly his heroic efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples, for which, Joseph Conrad said he would be remembered as the British Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566), referring the first chronicler of colonial atrocities in Latin America. (Writing to the Spanish crown, Las Casas referred to the “hell that is the Indies” and to the “tyranny, slaughter, robbery, and destruction, outrage, depopulation, anguish and calamities” visited upon the native inhabitants of the Americas.)

Casement’s story is so fascinating, interweaving with the sweeping historical events and personalities of his time, that it offers by itself the drama and plot of fiction. For this reason perhaps, Vargas Llosa does not seem to invent much, abiding by the contours of his subject’s biography.

In brief: Having participated in the Africa campaign of Henry Morton Stanley, Casement returned to the Congo as British consul with high ambitions of civilizing the continent. After witnessing the brutal treatment of the local inhabitants, Casement wrote a detailed exposé of sadism that shocked the world. Owing to the success of this document, he was appointed by the British government to investigate injustices committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. This report too caused an international sensation, so unsparing was its description of “psychopathic cruelty.”

These two human rights campaigns led Casement to understand that the Irish too were victims of British colonialism. So the British diplomat and knight turned against the Empire during WWI, traveling secretly to Germany to create a brigade among Irish prisoners. Upon his return to Ireland, he was captured, tried, and sentenced to death for treason. Just before his execution, Scotland Yard released his “black diaries,” which chronicled vivid and scandalous liaisons with men, which tarnished his reputation in conservative Ireland.

Vargas Llosa’s work, however, deals only briefly and casually with Casement’s homosexuality. Never examining in novelistic fashion the impact it could have had on his political identification with the victims of empire, the text sticks to the record like a documentary. In other words, it passes up on a chance to exploit the lies of fiction. The few scenes imagining the nuanced relationship between Casement and his jailor, for instance, are outnumbered by those focusing on his epic struggle against injustice in the Congo and Peru and his involvement in the Irish nationalist movement.

The final product, resembling more a biography rather than a novel, seems motivated by Vargas Llosa’s impulse to expose for a contemporary audience the invisible link between the modern convenience of rubber, on the one hand, and slavery, decapitation, rape, torture, and gratuitous murder, on the other. It is a postcolonial testimonial, the story told by a Peruvian author of a British diplomat who champions the victims of empire, only to become one himself.

Vargas Llosa’s allegiance here seems to truth rather than to fiction. Consider the meeting that he describes between Casement and Joseph Conrad in which the latter confesses he could not have written his “Congolese novel” without Casement’s help. Disappointed years later that Conrad had not joined William Butler Yeats, Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, amongst others, in signing the petition seeking his clemency, Casement wonders whether Heart of Darkness actually explores European crimes. Casement suggests (an expression of anxiety of influence no doubt) that Conrad turned Africa into a trope, a Circe that transformed people (black and white) into beasts. “I don’t think it describes the Congo, or reality but hell. The Congo is a pretext for expressing the awful vision that certain Catholics have of absolute evil.” Conrad’s classic, in other words, is less a political critique of colonialism than an ahistoric metaphor.

Was it to avoid this aesthetic trap that Vargas Llosa chose to chronicle the evils of empire without the shaping hand of fiction? Let’s consider an insightful line from Melville’s Billy Budd that too deals with an unjust execution. “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told,” Melville adds, “will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.” Melville’s convoluted sentences suggest that the flawless metaphor of the novel cannot be achieved by the verisimilitude of the documentary.

Vargas Llosa’s commitment to fact than to fable—his duty to exposing the lies of colonialism—forces him to tell uncompromising truth. (In this it resembles Dave Eggers’ What is the What, the story of a real refugee from South Sudan.) Not wishing to convert the Congolese and Peruvian rainforests into metaphors of blackness or whiteness, he does not produce a Heart of Darkness. His novel, however, raises the question of how to deliver unspeakable wickedness aesthetically. How do you talk about sexual degradation, human bodies turned into torches, and death marches in a narrative that is meant to amuse others? Do you bend reality to write a great novel? Or, do you stick to the truth in numbing detail?

These questions are as old as epic. Homer, for instance, understood the importance of deceit in narration. Herodotus tells us Homer knew that Helen never really went to Troy and that a phantom took her place. But revealing this truth, according to Herodotus, would have undermined the sweep of Homer’s tale—a war being fought for the most beautiful woman of the world. Who would fight for a stunt double?

And Helen herself in the Iliad recognizes the push and pull between ethics and aesthetics. Speaking with Hector on the ramparts of Troy, she says that the gods plotted her elopement so that poets could compose sagas about the war and thus give pleasure to listeners. “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, / so even for generations still unborn / we will live in song.” And in the Odyssey Odysseus, hearing his life in Troy sung as heroic tale, says “That was all gods’ work, weaving ruin there / so it should make a song for men to come.”

Helen and Odysseus clearly understand that human suffering becomes the subject of art. We seek the sublime by listening to tales of misery. After all, all happy people are the same and aesthetically uninteresting. But even unhappy people need to have their story shaped by fiction.

Perhaps Vargas Llosa was sensitive to this poetic paradox when composing The Dream of the Celt—a story of how an apostate diplomat turned revolutionary by way of Boma and Putumayo. In not wanting to transform human sorrow into a source of aesthetic gratification, has he written a lesser novel but greater philanthropic document?

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