History and Imagination in The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Author: Leopoldo M. Bernucci (University of California, Davis)

The epigraph before the beginning of Mario Vargas Llosa’s biographical novel The Dream of the Celt has the effect of an implacable judgment:

Each one of us is, successfully, not one but many. And these successive personalities that emerge one from the other tend to present the strangest, most astonishing contrasts among themselves.

—José Enrique Rodó, Motives of Proteus[1]

A crude interpretation of this epigraph could go as follows: according to Rodó’s words and Vargas Llosa’s use of them, men are at best creatures with double or multiple personalities, and at worst, with personalities so diverse and antithetical that they can be shocking.

If one gives the Peruvian author the benefit of the doubt, we may interpret the phrase “astonishing contrasts” as something related to a character particularity inherent to every rational being, that which reduces our existential condition to the most human of all mammals. Yes, of course, we struggle with our contradictions and incoherent life on a daily basis, but isn’t that precisely what defines us as humans? However, if one then takes the use Vargas Llosa makes of Rodó’s words at face value, it will result in a conclusive examination of the fictionalized Roger Casement that historians may find disturbing.[2] Obviously I am referring to the two sides of Casement’s life, both as a public figure and a private citizen, as well as to the way the Peruvian author delivered his final interpretation on Casement’s sexual life in his novel.

A second epigraph, this time upon opening the epilogue of the book, seems to indicate a straightforward and sympathetic message by a friend, one that counterbalances the doubleness expressed in the first epigraph. This epigraph belongs to no less than William Butler Yeats from his poem “Roger Casement”:

I say that Roger Casement

Did what he had to do.

He died upon the gallows,

But that is nothing new.[3]

As such, these two occurrences in the paratextuality of the novel prepare us as readers for its contents in the manner Vargas Llosa has interpreted and recreated Casement’s biography.[4] They also suggest aspects of the controversy that has surrounded Roger Casement’s personality and actions, and allow us to see, again, how polarized the public opinion has been and still is; as Vargas Llosa writes in the epilogue of the novel, “It’s not a bad thing that a climate of uncertainty hovers over Roger Casement as proof that it is impossible to know definitively a human being, a totality that always slips through the theoretical and rational nets that try to capture it.”[5]

It would be difficult to disagree with such a statement except that Vargas Llosa himself—as a novelist, and not as the fictional narrator of The Dream of the Celt anymore—by engaging in disambiguation in the novel’s prologue declares:

My own impression—that of a novelist, obviously—is that Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them, at least not integrally, that there is in them a good deal of exaggeration and fiction, that he wrote certain things because he would have liked to live them but couldn’t.[6]

So much for the ambiguity created by the two previous epigraphs used in the novel, an ambiguity that stops short of being effective because it is ultimately destroyed by the novelist’s final judgment, which in this case is no longer voiced by the fictional narrator, but by Vargas Llosa himself. Thus the questions we must ask are these: What is then left for this type of novel? Should a biographical novel of this kind always be faithful to the historical record? Or should a novelist be able to exercise poetic license freely as Vargas Llosa and many other writers do?

While in this paper I am not fully prepared to answer these questions, I would like to continue to explore some compositional aspects of The Dream of the Celt in that I will attempt to demonstrate Vargas Llosa’s use of the historical record and his own inventiveness against the backdrop of ethics, with the possible implication that the novel, in Angus Mitchell’s words, “scuppers Casement’s reputation” and “obfuscates his lasting significance.”[7] Here I am mostly interested in considering how far a novelist can go in his use of poetic license, when his novel is so much dependent on the historical record and guided by his ethical responsibility. But I am also aware that the historical record cannot always be flawless and, often times, is incomplete.

What still concerns me is the degree to which a novelist in general, but in our particular case Vargas Llosa, is able to maintain his intellectual, professional, and moral responsibility yet be able to exercise his poetic license as an artist, a right that he certainly has in the world of fiction. To be perfectly clear, for example, I believe along with Vargas Llosa that “laughter [should never be] forbidden in any literature that sought to be profound.”[8] I also agree with him that an author should “avoi[d] gratuitousness and irresponsibility when writing” and should also outright reject the notion that

the function of literature [is] to spread certain dogmas and become pure propaganda. It also mean[s] retaining one’s doubts and asserting the complexity of human experience even in those extreme situations—like racism, colonialism, and revolution—in which the border between justice and injustice, the human and the inhuman, seemed clearly demarcated.[9]

I mention this type of responsibility because I believe in the social role of serious novelists who should act as interpreters of reality in our society. Serious novelists should never be frivolous or irresponsible (especially those who deal with biographies or private lives), and neither ideologues nor promoters of literary utilitarianism.

Vargas Llosa is, of course, very much aware of his distinguished position in the culture of books and literature, and this awareness is nothing new to him. Actually, he has eloquently voiced it during the1960s when he used to debate ideological views as disparate as those by Sartre and Camus. Moreover, his first major attempt to create a polyphonic discourse in a novel was in The Green House (1966), a book where divergent worldviews among characters and the narrator established a paradigm for what ought to be in other novels by the Peruvian writer. Years later, it is with The War of the End of the World (1981) that Vargas Llosa inaugurated within the genre a type of novel that relies heavily on historical documentation, expanding also considerably its intertextual practice. I am referring to his borrowings from the historical record as much as from other non-historical sources—for example, fictional works, sociological studies, academic essays, his own interviews, notes, articles, and others. Some of these practices Vargas Llosa put to good use also in the The Dream of the Celt, as we will see later in this essay. Here, for practical reasons, I am concentrating on the Amazonian portion of Casement’s life only, and when relevant I will allude to those parts of the novel dedicated to Casement’s life in Africa and Europe.

Drawing from a series of sources, the Peruvian writer extracts passages of these and other texts referring to Casement’s time spent in Amazonia:

1) Carlos Valcárcel’s El proceso del Putumayo (1915)

2) The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, edited by Angus Mitchell (1997)

3) Vargas Llosa’s own essay, “Las raíces de lo humano” (2001) on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in his collection of essays La verdad de las mentiras (2002), or Touchstones (2011)

4) Fernado Nájar’s short biography of Benjamín Saldaña Rocca, “Benjamín Saldaña en el recuerdo,” published in Diaro de IQT (April 15, 2009)

My goal in offering a few examples here is not to provide an exhaustive list of borrowings, but rather to illustrate the different borrowing techniques the Peruvian writer employs in his latest novel regarding its nonfictional sources. However, with these examples I hope to demonstrate Vargas Llosa’s versatility and imagination in using them. The method we are applying in this demonstration is similar to that by G. Jean-Aubry, who studied Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and who states:

By studying carefully certain peculiarities in Joseph Conrad’s work, I had noticed that most of his characters, if they corresponded to people who had really existed, retained their true names, or only very slightly modified. It happens, too, that Conrad carries into his story some person he has known, together with his individuality, appearance and name, someone who did not play the part assigned to him, but who might have played it.[10]

The significance of suggestion cannot be underestimated, nor the importance of ambiguity in literature. These are two things that in the real world do not carry many positive values. In literature, as Dominick LaCapra reminds us, information is not always possible to be checked, and “what cannot be checked may bear upon some of the most significant and subtle processes in life.”[11]

First, it is worth examining what Vargas Llosa does with proper names and, more precisely what I have called “onomastic transformations” in my study of The War of the End of the World,[12] for the novelist applies similar and sometimes identical principles of fictionalization of real and fictitious entities (names and texts) to The Dream of the Celt in five different cases:

1) Fictionalization of real names

Real Names                                                     Fictionalized Names

Reginald Bertie                                               R. H. Bertie/Bertre[13]

Louis Harding Barnes                                     Louis Barnes

E. Seymour Bell                                              Seymour Bell

Contrary to similar cases found in The War of the End of the World, here the Peruvian novelist maintains both the characters’ names and occupations of these individuals: Colonel Bertie was the head of the Commission that travelled with Casement to Amazonia in 1910. Barnes was an agriculturist and an expert in rubber. Bell was a merchant, “interested in aspects of commercial development.”[14] This method of fictionalization helps to establish a pattern of realism in this novel that makes readers understand that this particular fiction is drawn from facts. But it would be simplistic to believe that Vargas Llosa is satisfied with history only, or that he passively accepts it at face value. Most of his readers know that as a rule the novelist is not a conformist. He is rather a rebel, one who always challenges facts.

2) Fictionalization of real names where last names are replaced by fictitious last names

Real Names                                                     Fictionalized Names

Henry L. Gielgud                                            Henry Fielgald

Walter Fox                                                      Walter Folk

Gielgud was secretary and manager of the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) and his counterpart in the novel, Fielgald, retains the same positions Gielgud held historically. Walter Fox was a botanist and his correspondent character in the novel, Folk, is also a botanist. Realism is not reality and yet some readers of fiction tend to take this truism for granted, when during the act of reading they even feel they identify themselves with the characters of the novel. The procedure whereby Vargas Llosa modifies proper names, by retaining part of their real component—for example, first or last name—ultimately guarantees the novel’s link to the historical record, while it also demonstrates that novelists are allowed to, and in fact enjoy, game playing as well.

3) Fictionalization of a fictitious name based on a related real name

Real Name                                                      Fictionalized Name

El Oriente                                                        El Oriental

Vargas Llosa slightly modifies the title of a well-circulated daily newspaper from Iquitos, El Oriente, and calls it El Oriental in the novel. Somewhat different from procedure #2, but with the same objective of maintaining his story “next to reality but not in reality,” Vargas Llosa reaffirms this self-evident idea that what one is reading is fiction and not history.

4) Fictionalization of a fictitious full name based on an unrelated real name

Real Name                                                      Fictionalized Name

Douglas Sinbad                                               Simbad/Sinbad Douglas[15]

By using and inverting the name of a 1930 McDonnell Douglas aircraft model, “Douglas Sinbad,” Vargas Llosa creates a double fictitious proper name: Sinbad Douglas. In the novel, this fictitious name applies to one of the Barbadians working for PAC. This is an example of a name that is actually not associated with the history of the involvement of Barbadians as contracted overseers in the Putumayo incidents.[16] The irony is that Vargas Llosa makes Sinbad Douglas feel real to us in the same way the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges speaks of Emma Zunz’s story in one of his most celebrated tales. Paraphrasing Borges, one could say that the name is unbelievable and not real, yet it convinces everyone, because in substance it is true.[17] Sinbad’s acts of torture are real; his indifference to floggings, mutilations, or murders is also real. The outrage that he causes, making Henry Fielgald go out to vomit is real, as well; all that is false are the circumstances, the time, and one or two proper names.

5) Fictionalization of fictitious names based on real names of individuals whose occupations are identical

Real Names                                                     Fictionalized Names

David Cases                                                    Stirs


Francisco Alayza y Paz Soldán                       Rey Lama

Carlos Rey de Castro                       ⇒            Esteban Zapata

Carlos Zapata

In reality, Cazes was appointed British Vice-Consul in 1902. The following year he became consul for the Department of Loreto. He resigned from his position in December of 1907. Alayza y Paz Soldán was prefect of Loreto during 1909-1910. Carlos Rey de Castro was the Peruvian consul in Manaus (1907-1912), and Carlos Zapata was the prefect of Loreto in 1908. In the novel, Vargas Llosa preferred to change Zapata’s first name (Esteban Zapata) and the month and year of his office in Loreto (November 1910). Similarly, another fictitious name appears in the novel, Rey Lama, who occupies the office of Loreto’s Prefecture in August of 1910. Apparently, the name Rey Lama was drawn from Rey de Castro and combined with Lama, a name that cannot be found in the historical record. In this case, one could not presume without explicit proof the complete resemblance between Lama and Zapata, but it is beyond a doubt, knowing the psychological process utilized by Vargas Llosa, that between these two figures, one imaginary and one real, there was more than a simple coincidence of roles and attitudes.[18] Finally, the novelist preferred to replace Cases with Stirs, the British consul in Iquitos, as he appears in The Dream of the Celt.

6) Fictionalization of fictitious names

Colonel Arnáez, Father Urrutia, Eponim Thomas Campbell, and Dos Reis are just a few names made up by the Peruvian author, which fit well in the gallery of the fictionalized historical names seen above. These are examples of names apparently not associated with the history of the Putumayo incidents. For example, in the novel, Dos Reis is the governor of the State of Manaus.[19] Historically, the governor’s name was Antônio Clemente Ribeiro Bittencourt, whose term in office lasted from 1908 to 1913.

In addition to the playfulness afforded by Vargas Llosa’s poetic license, we should now examine his practices of text borrowing, beginning with the author’s own nonfictional texts. I am referring to his 1990 critical commentary, “Heart of Darkness,” on Joseph Conrad’s famous novel published in La verdad de las mentiras, or Touchstones:


In Kinshasa, Conrad was informed […] he would serve as second-in-command on another steamer, Le Roi de Belges, under the command of its Swedish captain Ludwig Koch. […] Koch also fell ill in the journey, so Conrad ended up in charge of Le Roi de Belges.[20]

The Dream of the Celt

Conrad had made a voyage in Le Roi de Belges, back and forth between Leopoldville-Kinshasa and Stanley Falls. […] There he learned that the previous captain of the Roi de Belges had been shot dead by arrows in a dispute with the natives of a village.[21]

It suffices to note that the novel deviates from Vargas Llosa’s previous historical description of Koch’s fate by not identifying him as captain of the boat by name and doing away with him as a character in a conflict in which natives killed him.


Troubled by [1] diarrhea, disgusted and disillusioned by his Congolese experience, Conrad did not stay the three years in Africa […]. Because the tragedy that Kurtz personifies has to do with both historical and economic institutions corrupted by greed, and also that deep-seated attraction to the “fall,” [2] the moral corruption of the human spirit […].[22]

The Dream of the Celt

[1] Malaria kept him in bed in his small cabin with attacks of fever, without the strength to stand. […] But the physical misfortunes that had plagued him were not what had so disturbed the Pole.

  “It’s the moral corruption, [2] the corruption of the soul that invades everything in this country.”[23]

 Conrad said that in the Congo, [2] the moral corruption of human beings rose to the surface, in whites as well as blacks.[24]

Apart from modifying information drawn from his own text, “Heart of Darkness,” by substituting Conrad’s malaise (diarrhea) by malaria, the novel recuperates a phrase endowed with ethical effect (“the moral corruption…”) that reinforces the grotesque economic system implanted by the rubber industry in the Congo:


The novel is much more subtle and hard to pin down the contradictory interpretations that have been made of it: the struggle between [1] civilization and barbarism […]. These individuals [Europeans] represent [2] a worse form of barbarism […] than that shown by the barbarians […].[25]

The Dream of the Celt

That novel [Heart of Darkness] is a parable according to which Africa turns [1] the civilized Europeans who go there into barbarians. Your Congo report showed the opposite. That we Europeans were the ones who brought [2] the worst barbarians there.[26]

In fact, both texts, contrary to what we saw before, begin to coincide in their views on this moral issue, expanding their denunciation, and problematizing the dichotomy civilization-barbarism by inverting its terms: the true barbarians are now the European colonizers in Africa. If the two texts appear too similar in their protest tone, they are quite different in narrative style. In the essay, as one would expect, there is no dialogue, while in the novel the strong words about the European barbarians are quotations from Roger Casement’s 1904 report on the Congolese atrocities. Here, the novel is coming close to Casement’s written statements, which became part of the historical record.

Besides analyzing the relationship between Vargas Llosa’s essay “Heart of Darkness” and his novel, we should now turn to the examination of a horrific event narrated in one of the first books in Spanish on the Putumayo’s crimes: El proceso del Putumayo (1915) by the Peruvian Justice Carlos A. Valcárcel:

El proceso del Putumayo

One act of cruelty, by those miserable enemies of humankind and all noble sentiments was the odious and horrible incident which took place during Carnival time in [1] 1903. Unfortunately, more than [2]  800 Ocaimas arrived at La Chorrera to deliver the rubber that they had tapped. After weighing and delivering the collected rubber, a state manager, Fidel Velarde, selected [3] 25 among them, labeling them lazy. This decision by Velarde was enough to make Macedo and another overseer order that each one of the Indians be [4] covered in a sack, in a tunic style, soaked in gasoline and be set on fire. This order was followed and then the next thing it happened was the horrific scene in which [5] those unfortunate ones were running in different directions screaming and in heart-breaking pain until they reached the river where they ended up drowning […].[27]

The Dream of the Celt

Both [Victor Macedo & Miguel Loaysa] had played a leading role in the most memorable event of [1] 1903. [2] Close to eight hundred Ocaimas came to La Chorrera to turn in their baskets of balls of rubber harvested in the forests. After weighing and storing them, the assistant manager of La Chorrera, Fidel Velarde, pointed out to his superior, Victor Macedo, there with Miguel Loaysa from El Encanto, the twenty-five Ocaimas who had been separated from the others because they didn’t bring minimum quota of jebe—latex or rubber—they were responsible for. Macedo and Loaysa decided to teach the savages a good lesson. Indicating to the overseers—blacks from Barbados—that they should keep the rest of the Ocaimas at bay with their Mausers, they ordered the “boys” to cover the [3] [4] twenty-five in sacks soaked in gasoline. Then they set fire to them. Shrieking, transformed into human torches, some managed to put out the flames by rolling on the ground but were left with terrible burns. [5] Those who threw themselves into the river like flaming meteors drowned. Macedo, Loaysa, and Velarde finished off the wounded with their revolvers. [28]

The irony crowning this episode is based on real facts that took place, according to several testimonies, during a Carnival celebration in February of 1903. It was a celebration-turned-tragedy that served Vargas Llosa well in his description of the horrors of the Putumayo. The incidents show an unbalance of forces—eight-hundred Indians versus three overseers and a few Barbadians—cruel punishment, and cold, calculated murder. This scene also demonstrates a sadistic attitude that cannot pass unnoticed and has also been recorded by Benjamín Saldaña Rocca, W. E. Hardenburg, Cornelio Hispano, and Vicente Olarte Camacho.[29] The irony, as a result of the contrast between a time of joy (Carnival) and the mass assassination, is missing in Vargas Llosa’s narration; so, too, is precise information about the eight-hundred Ocaima Indians who participated in the celebration and the twenty-five burned Indians. In the novel, Vargas Llosa introduced Barbardians as executioners and also chose to add Miguel Loayza to the names of the real murderers: Fidel Velarde and Víctor Macedo, the managers of La Chorrera, where the incident took place. Historically, Loaysa, the manager of El Encanto, could have never been part of the group responsible for the killings.

A more contemporary text, Yosef Fernando Nájar’s short biography of Saldaña Rocca,[30] will also illuminate Vargas Llosa’s method of borrowing and the transformations the borrowed text undergoes in The Dream of the Celt:

“Nájar’s biography of B. Saldaña Rocca”

[3] The last time he was seen in town, according to Walt Hardenburg, who was in Iquitos, was in February 1909, when he was being shoved toward the embankment. [4] His face was swollen from the beating a gang had given him, probably under the orders of Pablo Zumaeta. [2] Moments before that, the gang members had destroyed his press in the first block of Calle Morona. [1] He was very thin, tall, grey-haired, and dark-skinned. [5] On the bank of the Amazon a boat, which would take him to Yurimaguas, was waiting for him.[31]

The Dream of the Celt

[1] He was very short and somewhat hunchbacked. What they call a cholo here, a cholito. That is, a mestizo. […] [2] They burned the press on Calle Morona. […] [3] The last time he was seen was in February 1909, on the embankment. He was being shoved toward the river. [4] His face was swollen from the beating a gang had given him. [5] They put him in a boat heading to Yurimaguas.[32] (115-16)

Of Saldaña Rocca’s physical characteristics [1], Vargas Llosa retained only the dark skin color that the novel attributes to his being a cholo or mestizo. Moreover, Saldaña Rocca’s height is changed and his posture somewhat deformed. No mention is made to his hair or weight; perhaps it is not necessary since the novelist apparently diminishes him physically to aggrandize him morally: a little man who through his press had the courage to fight the tropical gangsters of the Putumayo—or a sort of David and Goliath story. Today, Saldaña Rocca’s denunciations are recognized precisely as pivotal to the unmasking of PAC’s crimes against humanity. The other instances [2-5] of his autobiographical portrait given in the novel are faithful, and in some cases, identical, to the information Nájar provides in his writing.

Roger Casement’s Amazon journal is not only a rich source of information for historians but also for the Peruvian novelist. Casement’s precise and detailed descriptions are a contribution of enormous value to the history of the Putumayo and Caquetá regions during the 1910s. Further, the vivid and passionate scenes he paints of the rubber stations and their people, combined with the clarity and elegance of his language, are physical as well as psychological vignettes of the horrors committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. Following closely, almost daily, the footsteps of Roger Casement in his diaries, Vargas Llosa brings his readers into Casement’s life in the most realistic way.

The Amazon Journal

On arrival at Iquitos [1] the members of the Commission took up their quarters in the house of the Peruvian Amazon Company while I became the guest of Mr. Cazes.[33]

Mr. and [2] Mrs Cazes [are] very well….[34]

The Dream of the Celt

Stirs, the British consul, who welcomed them at the docks, indicated that [1] Roger would stay in his house. The company had prepared a residence for the members of the commission.[35]

Stirs, advanced in years, [2] a widower with no children, had spent half a decade in Iquitos and seemed a weary man without illusions.[36]

Historically, the fact that the British Consul hosted Casement in Iquitos after his first arrival can be easily proved; and that is where the two texts coincide. The novelist, however, preferred to change the consul’s name to Stirs and to make him a widower, when it is historically known that Consul Cazes was living with his wife, Mrs. Cazes, during the time of Casement’s first trip to Iquitos in August of 1910.

The Amazon Journal

Casement’s own health was beginning to suffer as they entered the hot and humid tropical climate and an eye infection increasingly began to trouble him.[37]

My eyes have got no better.[38]

My stay will depend on my health. Since coming to Iquitos I have been ill, and my eyes are very weak.[39]

The Dream of the Celt

[…] the old infection that irritated his eyes had become worse, as had the attacks of arthritis and the general state of his health.[40]

The reference to Casement’s eye problems appears not only in his diaries but also in his correspondence. The novel also captures one of the Irish patriot’s illnesses, his trouble with arthritis, which by late 1912 had nearly crippled him.[41]

The Amazon Journal

Colonel Bertie was struck down with acute dysentery. By the time they reached [1] Manaos, it was clear Bertie would be forced to turn back.[42]

There are actually four daily papers in Iquitos – viz. El Loreto Comercial; [2] El Oriente; El Heraldo; La Nacional.[43]

The Dream of the Celt

Colonel R. H. Bertie, a victim of dysentery, had to return to England when the ship docked at [1] Madeira.[44]

[…] the editor of [2] El Oriental […][45]

With great liberty Vargas Llosa changed the port of return to Madeira for Colonel Bertie, who was indeed afflicted by severe dysentery and had to go back instead from Manaus to England. As to the fictitious newspaper El Oriental, an emulated image of El Oriente, the novel only suggests that its editor is an important person. El Oriente, and so must be understood El Oriental too, had a reputation for ideologically aligning itself with PAC and serving as propaganda vehicle to counterattack Benjamín Saldaña Rocca’s accusations in his two newspapers: La Sanción and La Felpa.

To write a biographical novel like The Dream of the Celt involves a great deal of archival research and difficult decisions that a writer has to make, especially when he is faced with contradictions or lack of information on the person about whom he writes. In simple terms, Vargas Llosa’s task was no different from what I have just described. In more complex terms, however, his choices in representing an image of Roger Casement to his readers could not have ignored some ethical considerations. And it is precisely here, in the realm of ethics, that the Peruvian author is a master in reconciling differences, dialectizing opposites, and problematizing and relativizing truths.

The ethical challenges he faced in a much less complicated and early novel of his, La casa verde, or The Green House, may help illustrate my point. There, Vargas Llosa’s puzzle was to transform a whorehouse into something redeemable and acceptable to most of his readers. The solution he found was brilliant in that he made its owner, Anselmo, desperately fall in love with and marry a dumb and blind girl, whom he brings to his prostitution house to live with.

Another moment from this novel, which is quite emblematic of the ethical choices Vargas Llosa makes, reveals his judgment of the problematic missionary work by nuns in the Amazon. By his choice, we are inclined not only to accept that the nuns’ practice as cultural aggression to the Indians—which in fact is—but also invited to see the religious women as temporary “protectors” of Indians against worse predatory practices by rapacious patrones like Reátegui and Fushía.

This level of ambiguity, where one finds difficulty in deciding between Good and Evil, Paradise and Hell, Moral and Immoral, is also what makes the Peruvian writer’s novels great novels, since as in real life, we are also confronted with difficult choices and many times are forced to blur the line between these categories.

As to the representation of Roger Casement in The Dream of the Celt, I believe Vargas Llosa satisfied the conditions established for himself to write this type of biographical fiction:

[...] when you use history in writing a novel is to reach the level where all experiences are an expression of the human condition. [...] [Casement] was very exceptional, he was extraordinary in the variety of his roles, of his experiences [but] there is so much shadow [...].[46]

In conclusion, to shine a light on the gray areas of Casement’s life, Vargas Llosa privileged his imagination and fantasy over history. There are many moments of Casement’s life in and outside of the novel that are truly remarkable in elevating his human and historical stature. Conversely, the Peruvian novelist manages to recreate the final moments of Casement’s life, at the same time that, by reaching a problematic conclusion in his fictional story regarding Casement’s sexuality—“Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but did not live them”—he engages in a possible contradiction with respect to the historical record. Luckily, in fiction when there is such a deviation from the real facts, this deviation does not either translate into a loss or an unprofitable reading of the novel.

Subverting the historical truth from one of Casement’s very final moments of his life, when—according to a biographer—he was allowed to utter these last words, “Lord Jesus receive my soul,”[47] the Peruvian novelist makes him say “Ireland” (351) instead,[48] a simple and sweet seven-letter word that encapsulates Casement’s true spiritual fervor, his patriotism, and his authentic love for the Motherland altogether. This time, although not following exactly the information he found in the archives, Vargas Llosa got it right.


[1] Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, trans. Edith Grossman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

[2] See Laura P. Z. Izarra’s similar remarks in her excellent book review “El sueño del celta,” Estudio Irlandeses (2010), http://www.estudiosirlandeses.org/reviews/el-sueno-del-celta-2010/

[3] Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, 353.

[4] According to Gérard Genette, the paratext is an “‘undefined zone’ between the inside and outside” of a novel, such as an epigraph. See Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 2.

[5]Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, 355.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Angus Mitchell, Casement (London: Haus Publishing, 2003), 149-50.

[8] Vargas Llosa, “The Mandarin,” in Making Waves: Essays, ed. and trans. John King (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), 133.

[9] Ibid., 136.

[10] G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad in the Congo, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1926), 65.

[11] Dominick LaCapra, History & Criticism (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1985), 126.

[12] See Leopoldo M. Bernucci. Historia de un malentendido: un estudio transtextual de La guerra del fin del mundo de Mario Vargas Llosa (NewYork: Peter Lang, 1989).

[13] There are two different spellings for this last name: Bertie appears in the English version of the novel and Bertre in its original Spanish version. This discrepancy could be the result of a typographic error in the original Spanish text, El sueño del celta.

[14] See Mitchell, Casement, 60.

[15] Here there is another curious spelling case. Simbad appears in the original Spanish version of the novel and Sinbad in the English version.

[16] For a complete list of the thirty Barbadians working for PAC, see Angus Mitchell, Sir Roger Casement’s Heart of Darkness: The 1911 Documents (Dublin: Irish Manuscript Commission, 2003), 197-99.

[17] See Jorge Luis Borges, “Emma Zunz,” Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), 219.

[18] I follow G. Jean-Aubry’s rationale in dealing with similar onomastic playing in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; see Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad in the Congo, 66.

[19] Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt, 395.

[20] Vargas Llosa, “Heart of Darkness,” Touchstones: Essays on Literature, Art, and Politics, ed. and trans. John King (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), 36.

[21] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 53-54.

[22] Vargas Llosa, “Heart of Darkness,” 36-37.

[23] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 54.

[24] Ibid., 55.

[25] Vargas Llosa, “Heart of Darkness,” 37-38.

[26] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 54.

[27] Carlos A Valcárcel, El proceso del Putumayo, (Lima: Imprenta “Comercial” de Horacio La Rosa & Co., 1915), 92.

[28] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 119-20.

[29] See Benjamín Saldaña Rocca, La Sanción 13 (Iquitos, October 3, 1907); W. E. Hardenburg, The Putumayo: The Devil’s Paradise (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1913), 258-59; Cornelio Hispano, De París al Amazonas: las fieras del Putumayo (Paris: Librería Paul Ollendorff, 1912), 264-65; and Vicente Olarte Camacho, La crueldades en el Putumayo (Bogotá: Imprenta Eléctrica, 1910), 82-83.

[30] Yosef Fernando Nájar, “Benjamín Saldaña en el recuerdo,” Diaro de IQT (April 15, 2009), https://diariodeiqt.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/benjamin-saldana-en-el-recuerdo/. See also Nájar’s blog: http://fnajar.blogspot.com/2009_04_01_archive.html

[31] Nájar, “Benjamin Saldaña.” [My translation]

[32] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 115-16.

[33] Roger Casement, The Amazon Journal, ed. Angus Mitchell (London: Anaconda Editions, 1997), 91.

[34] Ibid., 452.

[35] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 108.

[36] Ibid., 111.

[37] Casement, Amazon Journal, 63.

[38] Ibid., 99.

[39] Ibid., 108.

[40] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 107.

[41] See Mitchell, Casement, 70.

[42] Casement, Amazon Journal, 63.

[43] Ibid., 96.

[44] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 107.

[45] Ibid., 112.

[46] Angus Mitchell, interview with Mario Vargas Llosa, Irish Migration Studies in Latin America 7, no. 2 (July 2009): 142.

[47] See H. Montgomery Hyde, Famous Trials 9: Roger Casement (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England/Baltimore: Penguin Books), 158.

[48] Vargas Llosa, Dream of the Celt, 351.