Mini-review (and a spot of pedantry)| El sueno del celta, by Mario Vargas Llosa

 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].

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4 comments

  1. George Dillon · · Reply

    I am struck by the fact that you call Casement “Anglo-Irish”. Why? His father and mother were Irish. He was born in Ireland. OK, he worked for the British Civil Service, but since there was no Irish Civil Service he didn’t have a choice.

    1. Hello George, and thanks for stopping by. You’re quite right – I thought to recall as I wrote that Casement’s mother was English, but on checking I see no evidence of that. Many thanks!

  2. Mari Carmen · · Reply

    I am at the moment reading this novel and keep wondering why Mario Vargas Llosa chooses to write New York instead of Nueva York as it should be in Spanish and inside a Spanish novel.
    I have checked to see if he had a page on Facebook to ask him this…but he hasn´t. Possibly to avoid having to write thousand of notes…
    I found that this work more than a novel seems a biography…and sometimes it reads like one of the articles Vargas Llosa writes so well in El Pais.
    Thanks for opening this little space to write about the book

    Mari Carmen

    1. Hello Mari Carmen, and thanks for stopping by! You’re right about ‘New York’ rather than ‘Nueva York’ – I hadn’t noticed that. I wonder if it’s to give a flavour of Roger’s anglophone perspective? Enjoy the rest of the novel!

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