Translated by Edith Grossman (as heroic as ever), this novel recounts the true-life story of Roger Casement, an Irishman who documented and published reports of human rights abuses in Congo and Peru at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries. Casement ran afoul of the British Empire when he returned home and realized that Ireland was as subject to imperialism and colonialism as the natives he had observed in extremis. The Crown did not take kindly to this epiphany. He was eventually arrested for treason for trying to enlist Germany’s help in the Irish fight against British rule.
The first half of the novel owes a clear debt to Joseph Conrad. “Heart of Darkness” hums like a mosquito in the background. In fact, among other historical figures, we meet Conrad himself, behaving like a coward in these pages. Sir Henry Stanley, the famous African explorer who found David Livingstone, is cruel. There’s not a hero among Casement’s cohort, not even poor Casement himself. He wanders, seemingly dazed, watching blood spatter from the “savages” and worrying about Ireland. It is a delicate performance by Vargas Llosa.
We first meet Casement in prison, awaiting execution. His entire adventure is told in unemotional flashback, but the story is oddly dammed because the narrative flow is as captive as its hero. By page 90, one realizes this is not a tale of adventure; it is a tale of oppression. The author expects us to attend to the great themes and learn.
Colonialists in the era of King Leopold II are portrayed here as weirdly disconnected from the violence they inflict. Convinced that torture is for their victims’ own good, these capitalists ravage the land in pursuit of rubber for burgeoning new markets in the first world. The natives are enslaved — and then tortured or killed if they resist. Their masters avoid censure by calling this genocide “liberation.”
The controlling images are of maiming, partition, armed raids and burning. We face repeated descriptions of emasculation: Penises meet machetes more than once; hands are lopped off or crushed so the victims are rendered helpless; rape and starvation often succeed the floggings. We smell stench everywhere: sweat, vomit, blood and diarrhea. Casement is shocked by what he sees and hears. “The things those rough men, dehumanized by the jungle, recounted . . . made his hair stand on end. Villages decimated, chiefs decapitated, their women and children shot if they refused to feed the members of the expedition.”
Vargas Llosa clearly studied the diaries of late 19th-century eyewitnesses to flesh out these hellish scenes. But perhaps his canniest move was springing Casement’s own memoirs upon us. We don’t know until fairly late in the book that he is secretly lusting after the native men. After the trial in London, evidence of his homosexuality was leaked to the public to stifle any sympathy during his appeal for clemency.
This vibrant reimagining of history is also a brilliant exploration of conflicting moral claims. Who are the oppressors? Who are the truth-tellers? As always, Vargas Llosa remains a fiendishly clever teacher.
Urrea is the author, most recently, of “Queen of America,” a sequel to “The Hummingbird’s Daughter.”
Mario Vargas Llosa will be at the National Book Festival on the Mall on Sept. 22-23.