Vargas Llosa: view from the margins
The Nobel Laureate did not expect to write a novel about Roger Casement, but ‘chance discovery’ led him down a fascinating literary path
DISTANCE AT TIMES proves a most valuable resource for a writer. It may well be the distance of a cultural remove as dramatic as in the case of the Peruvian Nobel Laureate in Literature Mario Vargas Llosa and his latest book. The Dream of the Celt is a sympathetic fictionalised biography of Roger Casement, who, within five years of being knighted for his services to the crown, was found guilty of high treason and executed in 1916 by his former employer, the British government.
Vargas Llosa smiles his gracious smile. “For me it was a chance discovery that became an investigation, one that led me to a novel I had not expected to write but . . .”. He gestures happily, pleased that he did write it.
While British and Irish novelists may have considered writing Casement’s story, a South American acted. Historians have criticised the book but Vargas Llosa remains confident: “I was telling a story about a man who happened to live, and what a story he had. I did the research, I have been a journalist, but I am also a novelist.”
Neither defensive nor defiant, he is pleased to discuss the book, and while it has been immensely successful throughout the Spanish-speaking world, he is excited at being back in Ireland where he did much of that research. That includes a viewing of Sir John Lavery’s great painting of the doomed Casement appeal, with the subject sitting impassive, that hangs in the King’s Inns in Dublin. He is curious to see the reaction to the book in this country.
The Irish dimension was to prove the most difficult. “The politics, the religion, the culture, the relationship to England: all very complicated and difficult to get exactly right. The 1916 leaders with their blood sacrifice were unlike any other group of rebels.”
One of the most intriguing of international literary personalities, Vargas Llosa is above all modest, as unpretentious as he is cosmopolitan; a terrific talker with a colourful, rather maverick streak. Still very much the dashing dissenter who once announced “The Latin-American situation offers a virtual orgy of motives for being a rebel and living dissatisfied”, he exudes curiosity, energy and natural friendliness. He seems at home in the elegant surroundings of the Spanish ambassador’s residence on spacious grounds in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.
Unlike many of the leading Latin-American writers, Vargas Llosa looked more to European and particularly American writers: “I have always loved Faulkner, especially Light in August.” His books are often autobiographical and invariably daring, beginning with his exceptional debut, The Time of the Hero (1962), in which he pilloried the Leoncio Prado military academy he had attended in Lima. His early life, including that miserable stint at the military school, a period as a crime reporter at 15 and later, still aged only 19, elopement with his uncle’s sister-in-law, is itself the stuff of fiction.
Cultural distance was something he already knew about as the son of Peruvian parents of Spanish descent. “It is funny, you know, but I had to go to Paris to realise that I was South American. Before that I always felt at a remove, marginal, despite the Spanish world being so extensive.”
This awareness of being an outsider has remained with him; he has travelled the world and explored many subjects at first hand and in his fiction. An interest in politics involved him in a failed presidential bid in 1990. If one word describes him, it is determined.
He looks suave, but determination has dictated his life. He has a sense of mission as well as a lively mind. “I wanted to be a writer, so I picked jobs that would enable me to live but also to write. That was my reasoning, always.” His interest in – “my obsession [with]” – Casement quickly begins to make sense. “I knew nothing about him; the first time I came upon him was while reading a biography of Conrad. Then there he was, this Casement, the man Conrad told that without him he would never had written Heart of Darkness. I said to myself that I had to find out about him.”