It’s amazing what you can achieve on an 8-hour train journey – in this case, reading almost the whole of the first Mario Vargas Llosa novel I have ever read of my own free will. Oh, it’s not the first one I’ve read – that honour goes to La ciudad y los perros (English trans: The Time of the Hero), one of our first-year university set texts and clearly *so appropriate* for a bunch of innocent 18-year-olds. Didn’t understand it, loathed it, swore never to read Vargas Llosa again. But then in 2003 I had to teach La fiesta del chivo (English trans: The Feast of the Goat) and that actually wasn’t so bad; at least this time I understood it and could see what some of the fuss was about. So when Vargas Llosa got the Nobel this year, and I was in Spain when his new novel was published, I thought – what the hell?! Let’s give it a try. And you know what? Loved it. Of course, it helps that the subject of the novel is close to my own area of interest, being set in the the early 20th-century Atlantic triangle of Britain (Liverpool!), the Congo and the Amazon.
So, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt) is about the Anglo-Irish diplomat, anti-slavery campaigner and Irish nationalist Roger Casement (right), whose story, moving between London, the Belgian Congo, Amazonian Peru, and Ireland, allows Vargas Llosa to explore the faultlines, currents and ‘cartographies of structures of power’ running through the Atlantic world during the early 20th century and, at the same time, to reflect on the fragility of the historical record. Casement’s is a true story, hence the absence of links in this paragraph – don’t want to spoil the narrative thread for those like me, who vaguely know about Casement, but aren’t really familiar with the details of his life and work. A central part of the novel is the question of Casement’s diaries and their authenticity, a question that remains largely unanswered today, and Vargas Llosa’s solution to it seems to me a perfect solution not only to the Casement question, but also to the question of how knowledge of this kind circulates and is recorded. I believe the English translation is underway and will be out in the next year or so, probably with Vargas Llosa’s usual British publisher, Faber & Faber.
PS:- far be it from me to correct a Nobel Laureate [ahem], but I believe the Booth Line ship on which Roger travelled to the Amazon would have been the Hildebrand rather than the Hilda [/pedantry corner].