Those who wish to see politics in everything frequently get their wish. The selection of a Nobel laureate in literature is a case in point. In 2001, the choice of V. S. Naipaul looked to some like a post-9/11 gesture of sympathy with America—even an endorsement of America's incipient military rebukes to Islamism. Four years later, awarding the anti-American Harold Pinter looked like a rebuke to the American rebuke. And last year's selection, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, looks like the most overtly political winner in the past three decades.
The attention garnered by other laureates for their politics has been, by and large, a byproduct of their writing. This is true of Pinter as well as of Gabriel García Márquez (a "courtesan of Castro," Vargas Llosa once called him). But for Vargas Llosa, politics is his métier, and his best work, both fiction and nonfiction, is political to the core. As a result of his failed 1990 campaign for the Peruvian presidency and five decades of political journalism, we know that he espouses Thatcherite classical liberalism with a Latin American face. (Much of Vargas Llosa's journalism remains unavailable in English; to confuse matters further, his collected early political writing, Contra viento y marea [Against the Wind and Tide], happens to share a title with the Spanish edition of the autobiography of the conservative Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris.) Now, with the release in Spanish of his seventeenth novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), Vargas Llosa's political reputation is due for a reappraisal.
Like his 2000 book about Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, The Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa's latest is a return to his strongest genre, which is the political novel crystallized on a lattice of fact. The Dream of the Celt fictionalizes the life of Roger Casement (1864–1916), an Irish patriot whose enthusiasm for political liberation approached excess. In 1903, he traveled to Africa as a British diplomat, and on witnessing the exploitation of Africans in King Leopold II's rubber-extraction industry, he authored a government report that ignited one of the first global social-justice movements, described in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost. Casement bore witness to the dismemberment and death meted out to the workers, and he soon acquired enough humanitarian credibility to be sent to investigate malfeasance in northern Peru (also the setting of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, and just as lawless and in-hospitable to human life as the film portrays it). There he exposed crimes and abuses similar to those he had seen in Africa. He was knighted in 1911.
The twist in the tale, however, comes with Casement's retirement from the consular service in 1913. He brought home to Ireland his appetite for liberation and began agitating for Irish independence. By 1914 he was in Germany (then at war with Britain), attempting to organize Irish prisoners of war to fight for a free and united Ireland. He failed, and when he realized the Easter Rising against British rule was doomed, he tried to return to Ireland to stop it. He was caught smuggling weapons ashore from a U-boat off County Kerry and was hanged in London on August 3, 1916. His corpse was mutilated and buried nude in an unmarked grave.
The Dream of the Celt begins in Casement's jail cell—where Vargas Llosa's fictionalized hero converses with his jailer, receives sympathetic visitors with bad news, and awaits clemency that never comes—and shifts between there and his stints in Africa and South America. Vargas Llosa sympathizes with Casement and sees him as a liberator who experienced a long, conflicted, and ill-fated journey to the grave—a trait found in some of the author's other characters, such as Antônio Conselheiro, the utopian preacher in The War of the End of the World (1984). Through these conflicts, Vargas Llosa gets beyond the clichéd and misunderstood "double life" of the Irish patriot. Although the narration is third person, Vargas Llosa gives us Casement's introspection in the form of "dreams" of his earlier life as a British consul. He served the crown but soon sought to undermine it, after much self-examination about where precisely his allegiances should lie.
To these secret misgivings one must add another. During his trial, diaries surfaced—their authenticity was in doubt, but Vargas Llosa seems generally to accept them—that revealed energetic cruising for young male lovers. The Casement of the novel experiences a political awakening because of a simultaneous sexual one. "Africa," Vargas Llosa writes, was for Casement a continent "of enormous suffering, but also a land of freedom, where human beings could be mistreated in wicked ways but could also express their passions, fantasies, desires, drives, and dreams—without the whipping and judgment that Britain used to drown out pleasure." The British used the diaries to embarrass him both in life and in death: A doctor publicly examined Casement's corpse to see whether his orifice was sufficiently dilated to have been the recipient of the copious sex his diaries suggested.
And so the African continent is his venue for transformation. Casement starts as an adventurer, says one character, and becomes a "mystic," somehow in touch with a moral order unavailable to common men. Where others shut themselves off from moral discussion ("I took the precaution of leaving my conscience in my country," says one official), Casement embraces the horror in order to be repelled by it. One measure of the darkness that envelops him is that it haunts even his friend Joseph Conrad, who appears as a character in one of Casement's African flashbacks. "You have deflowered me, Casement," the fictional Conrad says about Casement's effect on his thinking. "About Leopold II, about the Independent State of the Congo. Perhaps about life."
What makes The Dream of the Celt such a compelling political novel is not its glorification of liberty but its portrait of a complex moral evolution, based equally on secrecy, bravery, decency, and betrayal. On arrival in the Congo, Casement is loyal to his crown and skeptical of whether the Congolese, whom he calls "half-naked savages who worshiped snakes and cats and ate people," are worth saving. Within a decade he's convinced that an armed revolt of the masses is the way forward. "The only way the indigenous people of Putumayo can get out of their miserable condition," Casement says while investigating the Amazon, "is to rise up in arms against their masters." This is a remarkable transformation for the character, and evidence, perhaps, of a similar modulation in Vargas Llosa, who has spent his political life condemning armed revolt—specifically by the Shining Path in Peru—but here lends it slightly more sympathy.
Most provocative, though, is the handling of the Irish question, and the tension between the fanatical nationalism Vargas Llosa detests and the liberty he adores. Casement's work hastened the end of the worst phases of Amazonian and Congolese exploitation, but his efforts in the much more ambiguous cause of Irish independence did little. His death was at the time an embarrassment rather than a martyrdom. Vargas Llosa's characterization of Casement's inner conflicts poses questions particularly relevant to Latin America: How does devotion to freedom and liberalism morph into revolutionary armed struggle? And when should it?
The end of the horrors of the Amazonian and Congolese rubber trade required Casement's zeal, as well as immense physical and moral courage (according to Hochschild, the mortality rate for whites in the Congo was roughly one in three). Could he have had that same passion and not also died needlessly for a unified Ireland? Could anyone have conjured this enthusiasm without endangering his soul through less worthy enthusiasms? At one point, Vargas Llosa permits Casement to wonder why he made fatal practical oversights in his efforts against the British. His protagonist comes close to saying that the struggle for freedom has itself driven him insane, that the proximity to pure evil has weakened him and made him prone to misjudge things. Vargas Llosa's conservatism consists in part in advocating individual rights, in part in understanding that unmitigated zeal is dangerous, even when directed toward good ends.
Casement's biography offers many of the complications of Vargas Llosa's own career: a clear-eyed commitment to liberty, and an eloquent bafflement about how a society can achieve it. In jail, a visitor tells Casement how during the failed Easter Rising not only British soldiers but also the Irish mothers and wives of soldiers and policemen fought back against the rebels. "That [was] the hardest test for those who thought they had justice, goodness, and truth on their side—discovering that those who opposed them weren't the dogs of Empire, the soldiers of an occupying army, but humble Irishwomen." Casement joins Vargas Llosa in marveling at this final zag in history's path. "Was he not a living example of [history's] ambiguities?" And is there not an astonishing asymmetry between the justice of his cause (which neither Vargas Llosa nor his hero doubts) and its results? The Easter Rising left the Irish people still oppressed, and one of their liberators waiting to be strung up and anally probed.
As fates for freedom fighters go, the dais in Stockholm is a considerable improvement on Casement's. To marvel at history's curveballs, convinced that one is on justice's side but conflicted about how to implement it, is certainly a more circumspect position than that taken by the Guevarist Nobelists of yesteryear. It's also the more conservative position and, one guesses, the one less likely to be embarrassed by history.
Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.