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In the Heart of Darkness,Light

Llosa’s novel about Roger Casement is also a trenchant critique of Conrad

Written by Pratik Kanjilal |
July 21, 2012 3:53:24 am

Book: The Dream of the Celt

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa

Translated by Edith Grossman

Publisher: Faber

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Pages: 404

Price: Rs 499

Mario Vargas Llosa has always loved political complexity and the protagonist of his latest novel is one of the most complicated players in modern history. Sir Roger Casement was born in Dublin but his roots lay in nationalist Antrim and Ulster. His father was Protestant,but his mother,born a Catholic,had Casement secretly baptised. He worked in the shipping trade,became a diplomat for the Crown,supported human rights in the early 20th century when the term had no universally understood meaning,and finally turned against London to fight for Irish independence. He earned a knighthood for his humanitarian work in 1911 and five years later,was hanged in Pentonville prison for his alleged role in the Easter Rising. One can scarcely think of a more complicated historical character from the colonial era,and in the hands of translator Edith Grossman,Llosa’s account of his life seems to read as vibrantly as the Spanish original,published in 2010.

Part biography and part fictionalised chronicle,The Dream of the Celt — named for an epic poem composed by Casement — is a retelling of a very complex life. But the student of literature will find it intriguing for another reason — it is a very gentle but trenchant critique of Joseph Conrad. Casement and Conrad had met in Africa and probably influenced each other to some extent. But the works they produced from the African experience,narratives of exploration,colonialism and exploitation,are utterly different.

Conrad’s fictional Heart of Darkness focuses on the dehumanisation of Western man in a “savage” world. The Congo brings out the best and the worst in Mr Kurtz,the eerily intelligent central character who descends into tribalism in a self-made hell beyond the reach of civilisation. The fate of Mr Kurtz — played by Marlon Brando in the derivative Apocalypse Now — is the axis of the story,not the fate he visits upon the Africans around him.

Casement’s factual report on the Congo Free State,commissioned in 1903 when he was British consul at Boma,offers a stark contrast. It catalogues the mass exploitation that men like Kurtz carried on out of sight of civilised Europe,by creating a regime that was “greedy,brutal and insatiable when it came to food,drink,women,animals,skins,ivory,in short everything that could be stolen,eaten,drunk,sold or fornicated with”. Or enslaved,tortured,maimed or murdered,as Llosa’s account goes on to elaborate. In comparison with this reported account of the effects of colonialism,Conrad,a giant in modern fiction,looks like a mere self-indulgent psychological author. And distressingly Western besides,despite his Polish origins.

Casement produced two devastating reports in his diplomatic career,at great personal danger. The first analysed the Congo Free State,the personal fiefdom conferred upon Leopold II of Belgium by the Berlin Conference of 1885,which was led by the great powers — the UK,France,Germany and US — but did not have a single Congolese delegate. Leopold exploited the Congo as a private businessman,not the monarch of Belgium,and caused unlettered Congolese chiefs to enter into contracts with his agents which guaranteed perpetual indebtedness. With rubber,ivory and other forest produce in great demand in Europe and the US,they were connived into financing their own exploitation,torture and decimation.

Failure to meet quotas could result in genital mutilation,having a hand cut off,or summary execution. From a Trappist priest,Casement learned of the village of Walla,where men had just sold their wives and children to travelling slavers in order to buy enough latex to meet their quotas. He visited the village,a dehumanised hell where “no one cries,no one complains of injustice,but only ask for quotas to be lowered”.

Casement’s Congo Report shocked Europe,ended Leopold II’s bull run and the Belgian Congo was carved out of his territories in Africa. Then,as “an expert in atrocities”,a rarity at the time,the Crown sent Casement to Peruvian Amazonia,whose jungle was being opened up by private enterprise — the transnational rubber empire of Julio Cesar Arana. The crown had an interest because Arana’s company was founded in London. Casement found that this company had replicated the horrors of Leopold II’s Africa on another continent. “It is the Congo again,” he wrote. “The Congo is everywhere.”

In The Dream of the Celt,Llosa establishes the centrality of greed in the modern conception of evil. The other deadly sins are now redundant. Greed alone suffices to inspire the most dreadful crimes of violence. Casement started his career believing in the value of the “three Cs” of his time: civilisation,Christianity and free commerce. They legitimised the plenipotentiary C — colonialism,which forged the modern world map,largely through exploitation and violence. Today,commercialised greed continues to fuel neocolonial enterprises mandated,ironically,by the same powers which led the Berlin Conference 127 years ago.

The colonial experience awakened the Irish patriot in Casement. He canvassed support for the Irish freedom movement in the US and in Germany,then at war with Britain. He returned to Ireland by a German U-boat,hoping to stall the Easter Rising of 1916,convinced that it would end in defeat. He was captured and,ironically,tried as one of its leaders. In custody when the rising started — and failed,as he had predicted — he was hanged despite a clemency plea backed by friends like W.B. Yeats and Bernard Shaw. The discovery of his diaries,in which he had colourfully detailed his homosexual experiences,went against him. And the polarised atmosphere of the Great War denied him the support of friends like Conrad,who had a son at the front.

Conrad is a living character in this novel,suggesting that Llosa consciously took on the master to destabilise his canon. Llosa concludes that in its civilising mission,Europe brought inhuman barbarities to Africa,while Casement returned to Europe humanised by his experiences in Africa. His novel is not a new noble savage myth but a very gentle,respectful attempt to overturn the Eurocentric myth of Heart of Darkness,to reveal the real location of the dark by shining the light of the literary intellect upon it.

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First published on: 21-07-2012 at 03:53:24 am

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