announcement by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa
of his intention to research and write a new novel about
the Irish revolutionary, Roger Casement, locates him within
a tradition stretching across the twentieth century. Both
during his life and after his execution, Casement attracted
considerable interest from writers, novelists, poets and
playwrights. He met Joseph Conrad in the Congo and kept
in touch with him for many years afterwards. Mark Twain
wrote a pamphlet in support of the Congo Reform Association,
an early human rights organisation that Casement co-founded
with the activist E.D. Morel in 1904. Arthur Conan Doyle
based a character in The Lost World on Casementís
Amazon adventures and helped organise one of the petitions
of clemency after his trial, which included the signatures
of several well-known writers. William Butler Yeats sent
a letter to the government in 1916 pleading for his reprieve
and George Bernard Shaw penned a discarded speech from
the dock. As Vargas Llosa comments in the course of the
interview below, Casement Ďseems to be a character whose
natural environment is a very great novel, not the real
The question of the reasons why Casement has remained so influential on the literary imagination is an intriguing one to consider. Joseph Conrad partly explained it when he wrote in a letter to the Scottish adventurer and writer R.B. Cunninghame Graham: ĎHe could tell you things! Things Iíve tried to forget; things I never did know.í This was a comment codifying the paradoxes that have determined Casementís life between memory and forgetting, telling and not telling, secrecy and revelation.
To anyone familiar with Varga Llosaís work there is perhaps something inevitable about his intention to write a novel based on Casementís life. Themes and tropes that appear and reappear in several of his earlier works, such as the jungle, insurgency, millenarianism, sexuality, violence, the conflict between the indigene and modernity, (trans)nationality, the excesses of power and individual betrayal are all intrinsic to Casementís history.
In this interview, the historian, Angus Mitchell, who has published extensively on Roger Casementís life and afterlife, speaks to Mario Vargas Llosa about why he is writing a book about the executed Irishman.
Let me say first that I am very grateful for the books
you have sent me and Iíve read both of them and enjoyed
Well, thank you, and Iíve enjoyed reading your books.
(Laughing) It is reciprocal then. I particularly enjoyed
very, very much your edition of The Amazon Journal
of Roger Casement (1).
I think you did a wonderful job.
Thank you, I hope it was useful.
The notes in particular are very illuminating about the
context Ö a wonderful, wonderful job. Congratulations
and thank you very much.
Did you see the follow-up volume Sir Roger Casementís
Heart of Darkness (2)?
Yes, absolutely. Itís so rich all this material that sometimes
I feel lost with all the richness of the raw material
that I have Ö I am writing a novel so I am using this
with, letís say, freedom, you know.
How long have you been working on the novel?
A year and a half and I am still at the beginning, but
it doesnít matter because now I am starting to enjoy it.
At the beginning I was a bit lost, but now I am working
with great enthusiasm.
When did you first encounter Casement?
I am a great admirer of Joseph Conrad, like everybody
I suppose, and I was reading a new biography on Conrad,
and then, when I discovered that Roger Casement had played
a very important role in the experiences of Conrad in
the Congo and that probably without the help that he received
from Casement he wouldnít have written Heart of Darkness
as he wrote it, I became very curious to know about
Roger Casement. I started to research him and I discovered
that he had been in the Amazon, he had played a very central
role in the denunciation of the inequities committed during
the caucho [rubber] boom period, and then I discovered
that he was a fascinating character himself. All these
roles he played in different political environments and
then his tragic end. Then, as has usually happened with
all the books Iíve written, the image of Roger Casement,
the history of Roger Casement started to loom in my mind,
in my life. Itís always like that. And one day I discovered
that without knowing it, I had already been working in
a vague project around Roger Casement.
I was struck when doing some research into your own background
that you were brought up within diplomatic circles and
then, in the 1980s, you were asked to lead a commission
selected to investigate the atrocity of the journalists
at Uchuraccay. There are obvious echoes here with Casementís
life. Do you consider these points of experiential contact
Probably, these similar experiences made the case of Roger
Casement more attractive. I should say that the experience
with what happened at Uchuraccay with the killing of these
eight journalists was an experience which had a tremendous
impact in my life. (3)
I discovered another dimension of my own country which
I knew nothing about and, I suppose, this kind of experience,
to be suddenly immersed in a very different cultural world
and cultural environment and to discover the tremendous
social, political, cultural problems, so different from
the problems of the world in which I had been living before.
This made me very sensitive to the kind of problems which
Roger Casement faced in part of his life. He was a very
tragic figure. Probably the life of Roger Casement was
a very difficult life: solitude, prejudices around himself,
the difficult transformation of a pro-British Irishman
into a nationalist, his rejection of empire and of colonialism
in his youth he thought were the tool of modernisation,
of democratisation, of Westernisation from the rest of
the world, is an extraordinary transformation and that
he did this by himself through experiences and through
his character is extremely attractive and at the same
time very dramatic. No?
Yes, it is an incredible story, it has almost every ingredient.
He seems to be a character whose natural environment is
a very great novel and not the real world.
In preparation for writing this book you travelled to
the Congo. Where did you visit? What were your impressions
of the Congo? Did you find any significant evidence of
Casementís continued presence in the Congo?
It was only two weeks but it was so useful for me because
I wanted to be in the places in which he had lived for
so long. Boma and Matadi have not changed much. Matadi
has grown, but still you find the traces of the colonial
city. But Boma has hardly changed at all, when the administration
moved to Kinshasa, Boma was completely abandoned and practically
has not grown since and still you find the city with the
colonial houses. Itís very impressive. You can really
reconstruct the environment in which Casement lived for
so many years. I was lucky, I found a very interesting
person Mr. Monsieur Placid-Clement, who is probably the
only person in Boma interested in the past, trying to
rescue, to preserve all that is a testimony of the old
life of Boma and so heís a kind of librarian. The problem
is there are no books in Boma. He preserves anything:
papers, letters, all the papers that he can find are in
his office because there is no local archive. He was very,
very useful as an informant on the past in Boma.
Did you find any significant evidence of Casementís continued
What for me was very sad is that very few Congolese people
knew about Casement. It is very sad because if there is
one person who fought for years to denounce all the tragedy
of the Congolese people, it was Casement and nobody remembers
him. There are a few university teachers but even then
they have a very vague idea of him and the importance
of Casement. But the tragedy of the Congo is such that
they have forgotten the past, they are not interested
in the past at all because what they see in the past are
such horrors that they prefer to forget about the past,
about tradition, about history. They are completely absorbed
by and concentrated on the present, because the present
is so atrocious you know. You canít imagine the poverty,
the corruption, the violence. I thought I knew about misery,
about violence in Latin America, but when you go to Congo
you discover that Latin America is modernity, civilisation,
by comparison to the tragedy of the Congo society. It
is really indescribable Ö unspeakable Ö But at the same
time it was very interesting from, letís say, a personal
point of view to be exposed to this social disintegration,
the disintegration of a society at all levels.
It is something which Casement described in his own time
and a hundred years later the same tragedy is occurring?
Absolutely, Casementís report on the Congo is still very
valid, very, very valid. You still find exploitation and
brutality which has disappeared from the rest of the world,
even in Africa. Slavery is still a very vivid institution
in Congo. What doesnít exist any more is a central power
because now, with the decentralisation of the country,
there is no central power. For the rest, what he described
and what he saw in the Congo is still very present.
How is Casement remembered in Peru? Is he reviled for
his investigation, or upheld as a champion of indigenous
rights, or is he simply forgotten?
A British newspaper reveals the Putumayo horrors - National Library of Ireland
In Peru he is more remembered. What is very interesting
is that there is still this controversy that the Blue
Book produced onehundred years ago is in a way still
going on. (4) There
are still people who say Ö Ďwell the Blue Book
was written to favour the Colombian pretensions in the
Putumayo region. Roger Casement was not fair. He was very
biasedí Ö But on the other hand you have people who admire
enormously what he did, particularly in the Amazon in
Iquitos. I was in Iquitos recently talking to historians
there and they remember Casement with great admiration
and gratitude. I think what Roger Casement did was absolutely
useful at least to make visible a problem which the great
majority of Peruvians ignored completely. They didnít
know what was going on in the Amazon. They didnít know
the kind of exploitation, brutality, atrocities which
were committed by the caucho people in the Putumayoregion.
Now they were very ignorant about that, so the scandal
was at least very educational and instructive for the
majority of the country. But still Arana is a controversial
figure. There are historians who consider that in spite
of everything he introduced a kind of modernity in a very
primitive and prehistoric world. It is very interesting
because in a way Casement is much more remembered in Peru
than in Congo. All the mystery that surrounds Roger Casement
in Iquitos is fascinating and no one knowswhat happened
to SaldaŮa Rocca. You are the only person who mentions
that SaldaŮa Rocca (5)
went to Lima, lived very poorly in the capital and died.
There is no way to find testimonies of the last years
of Benjamin SaldaŮa Rocca in Lima.
Cartoon from the anti-Arana newspaper
La Felpa - Arquivo Nacional, Peru
Can we talk now about this novel in the context of your
other work? It strikes me that thereís something almost
inevitable about your decision to write about Casement.
You have experimented in several of your novels with multiple
perspectives. Captain Pantoja and the Secret Service,
Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and The Feast
of the Goat are three examples. Casement is composed
of often conflicting layers of meaning and myth and in
his contradictions as villain and hero, traitor and patriot,
and the public and the private, there is plenty of room
for experimentation with perspectives Ė would you comment?
Frontpage of Iquitos-based newspaper
La Sancion showing Guiseppe Garibaldi
Arcquivo Nacional, Peru
Probably the aspect of Roger Casement which for me is
more and more interesting is how his life rejects all
kinds of stereotypes. You cannot use stereotypes for Roger
Casement because the nuances are absolutely essential
in his personality, nuances and contradictions, and in
this sense I think he is much more human than the usual
heroes. Heroes in history or heroes in literature, in
general, are of a piece. But in Roger Casement there are
so many nuances in all the periods of his life, or in
the roles that he played in his life, that what is really
the human condition of a hero is always present in his
case. In other cases, because of the stereotypes, the
hero becomes so attached to the idea of a hero that he
is dehumanised. Heísnever been dehumanised, heís always
at the level of humanity, even when he accomplished the
most extraordinary achievements. On the other hand, I
think itís very moving how even in the periods in which
he was more celebrated, admired, he preserved a kind of
modesty, a kind of distance from his public figure which
is very unusual among heroes or public figures. Another
fascinating aspect is that, in spite of everything that
historians have discovered about him, there is also a
large measure of mystery. It is difficult to tap him entirely.
Several critics have discussed the intertextuality in
your work, and Iím thinking here most obviously of The
War of the End of the World. (6)
Casementís own voyages of investigation were themselves
shaped, some would argue, by Conradís Heart of Darkness.
Would you comment?
The subject is very different but my approach to the character
is the same. I have tried to read everything I can, visiting
the places he lived or that were important for his work.
But I donít want to write a book of history which is disguised
as a novel, not at all. I want to write a novel and so
Iím going to use my imagination, my fantasy, much more
than historical material, as I did with La Guerra
del Fin del Mundo, as I did with the book on Trujillo
[The Feast of the Goat], as I did in the book
about the dictatorship of President OdrŪa of Peru in Conversations
in the Cathedral. I love history but I am a novelist.
I want to write a novel, a book in which fantasy and imagination
are more important than the historical raw material.
Yes. Iíd like to talk more about history and the imagination
in a moment.
That is a fascinating subject, a very large subject.
Casement felt he was informed by his duality, his double
consciousness as an Irishman working for the British Empire.
In his trajectory towards Irish separatism he was clearly
motivated by his own interpretation of Irish history and
his opposition to colonial authority.
There is such ambiguity, but what is interesting is how
he escaped from these conditions. He worked for the British
Empire and that was not an obstacle for him to be very
critical about the institution which he served with such
efficacy and loyalty for most of his life. At the same
time he discovered all the sinister aspects of colonialism
and he acted in a very coherent way working against what
he considered was evil.
Have you considered Casement in the light of postcolonial
I think what you say in your book is absolutely true.
One of his great achievements is to have understood better
than most of his contemporaries the evil aspect of colonialism
and acted in a very coherent way against colonialism from
the centre of colonial power itself. That is what is really
unique in his case. He did it with such efficacy because
when we talk about colonialism, we are talking not only
of powerful countries which invade, occupy and colonise
others, but we are talking about internal colonialism
of the westernised Peru against the primitive Peru. He
denounced this in the same way that he denounced the Belgians
against the Congolese. He denounced the colonialism of
the westernised blancos and mestizos
against the Indians of the Amazon region, who were treated
like the Congolese by the Belgians in Africa. He was very
lucid in that respect and much more in the avant garde
than the majority of his contemporaries.
London was your home for many years, and you have studied
and taught in British universities. Do you think this
affinity allows you to empathise with Casement as an Irish
I think so. I think the years I lived in England were
very important for, how can I say, my intellectual horizons.
Yes, I perceived many, many things. I learned many, many
things about not only literature but politics, social
You know there is this deep and long-standing conflict
between Britain and Ireland that is lived out on a level
of history - and Casement is perhaps the most complex
of all the figures who interferes in that relationship.
But I think in this case you have to place Roger Casement
in his times, which are essential to understanding for
example the belligerency of his attitudes, and are very
different today. It was very difficult in his time. He
was in a very lucid minority, a very small minority, in
a given moment. I think he was very courageous, very,
very courageous and at the same time it was very tragic
for him because for many years he had his ideas and at
the same time his public figure was in total contradiction
with what he thought, what he believed.
The question of sexuality has played a disproportionate
role in the discussion on Casement. Would it be wrong
to guess that the so-called Black Diaries are central
to the shaping of your own historical novel? In a recent
interview in The Guardian you were quoted as
saying that ĎThere is a great debate about his [Casementís]
homosexuality and paedophilia that has never been resolved
and probably never will be.í (7)
Let me correct this a little bit. I donít think that there
is a possible doubt about Roger Casementís homosexuality.
I think he was a homosexual, but what I think is still,
particularly after reading what you have done in The
Amazon Journal, that it is still possible to discuss
the authenticity of the Black Diaries. You give very strong
perceptions of all the contradictions between the Black
Diaries and the report. But I think he was a homosexual.
This is another very dramatic, tragic aspect of his life
if you place homosexuality in the context of the prejudices
and persecution of homosexuals.
I would say that the issue of authenticity is now more
about the textual rather than the sexual.
Thatís right, absolutely. Exactly. It is the textual which
is controversial. It is very strange all these contradictions
in very concrete facts in texts written almost simultaneously.
I was in Oxford very recently with John Hemming (8)
and we were discussing this and he was saying ĎNo, no,
no the diaries are authentic. I assure you that they are
authentic. There was no time for British Intelligence
to fabricate them, there was no time.í But I answered:
ĎHow can you explain the inaccuracies in the Black Diaries
if he was writing both things at the same time. So I think
this is something that can be discussed and still considered
controversial. But not his homosexuality. The homosexuality
was something which was another very personal element
of the tragedy he lived all his life. No?
Very interesting. A few years ago there was a brief exchange
between two figures involved in the controversy about
who could legitimately speak for Casement. The suggestion
was put that only a gay man could really understand and
speak for Casement. How would you respond to this point
(Laughing) That is a terrible prejudice. If that was so
a man couldnít write about women or Peruvians couldnít
write about Europeans. No, no, I think literature is a
demonstration of how this is all absolutely ridiculous
prejudice. A writer can write about every type of human
and character, because there is a common denominator which
is more important behind the sexual orientation, the cultural
tradition, the language, the races. No, I believe in the
unity of the human kind, I think literature is the best
demonstration of the universal experiences that can be
understood and shared among people of very different extractions,
very different identities and other levels of life including,
of course, sex.
Thatís very reassuring. We touched a little earlier on
the relationship between fact and fiction and history
and imagination. Your interview in The Guardian
also quoted you as saying that you were Ďnot looking for
historical precision but for something to shake me out
of my insecurityí.
Moreover, in a recent letter explaining your intentions
for the novel you wrote how you were Ďwriting a novel
in which fantasy and imagination will play a more important
role than historical memory.í What value do you give historical
memory in the context of this story?
I think what is important when you use history in writing
a novel is to reach the level where all experiences are
an expression of the human condition. Not the local or
regional characteristics, but on the contrary, what is
general, something that transcends these limitations or
conditions letís say Ulysses, something that
can be understood by people of very different cultures.
I read Ulysses for the first time when I was
in Lima and I hadnít been in touch with other cultures
and I was moved, deeply, deeply moved by Leopold Bloom
and the Dublin of Joyce. When you read War and Peace
you donít need to be a Russian or a contemporary of Napoleon
to be deeply moved by the story that Tolstoy told. I think
that this is the importance of literature as something
that makes clear what is common, what is shared among
the great variety of experiences, of traditions, of customs.
I think that this is what you should try to achieve when
you write a novel based on history: this common denominator
in which we recognise each other even if we speak in very
different ways or we believe in very different things.
So that is what Iíve tried to do. I know that I am not
Irish so probably in my novel Irish people will find many
things that they do not recognise, but I hope the novel
overall will justify the inaccuracies.
Many distinguished writers have touched Casementís life
in different ways: Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle,
George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, W. G. Sebald,
to name a few Ö
This is one of the great things of Irish literature, universality.
Even when Ireland was still very provincial, [it could]
produce these dreamers - the great poets and the great
novelists who were so universal. Thatís an example to
Conversely, historians have steered a wide berth away
from him as a subject. Despite the size of Casementís
surviving archive and his implacable pursuit of Ďfactsí
and Ďtruthí, he appeals more to the literary imagination
than to archive-based research. Why do you think this
Probably because in order to really understand Casement
you have to use as much research and academic discipline
as fantasy or imagination. Without the fantasy and a lot
of imagination you donít reach a character like Casement.
He was very exceptional, he was extraordinary in the variety
of his roles, of his experiences, there is so much shadow,
I think you need a lot of imagination and fantasy and
probably that is why he is so appealing for literary people.
Which historical novelists do you admire?
Tolstoy. I am a great admirer of Tolstoy and the nineteenth-century
novelists, Stendhal, Victor Hugo. Contemporary novelists
who have written a lot about socio-historical matters.
For example, I admire Andrť Malraux very, very much and
his novel La Condition humaine which is a masterwork,
but very neglected by people because of political reasons.
(9) Malraux was a Gaulliste,
and his work has been neglected, but I think La Condition
humaine is a masterwork as a political novel. That
is something very difficult to write: a political novel.
Iíve heard it said of your own work that you use writing
in order to challenge social inadequacies, oppression
and political corruption and to encourage active, critical
citizenship. Has the telling of the Casement story helped
you do this and how?
Yes, I think he is a fantastic character to denounce the
selfishness of people, who are unable to see more than
self-interest. He was a very generous man, his life was
orientated around great goals: social, political, cultural,
and he was absolutely ready to sacrifice his own personal
interests. Itís very moving how he spends all his money
on humanitarian organisations, cultural organisations.
On the other hand he was a victim of all kind of prejudices
and if you want to describe in a very contemporary way
the stupidity of religious, political, sexual prejudice,
you have a fantastic example in Roger Casement. On the
other hand he was human, he also had his own limitations.
I think you can discuss in a given moment the way in which
his nationalism became a cultural nationalism and he was
restricted in a way that can be, I think, criticised.
He was not a superman, he was a human being, he was a
very extraordinary man but he was not a superman. I think
that this is the aspect I would like to emphasise in my
Sr. Vargas Llosa thank you very much.
Iíve been very pleased to talk to you.
Angus Mitchell has lectured
on campuses in the US and Ireland and continues to publish
on the life and afterlife of Roger Casement. He lives
Angus Mitchell (ed.), The
Amazon Journal of Roger Casement (London & Dublin,
Angus Mitchell (ed.), Sir
Roger Casementís Heart of Darkness (Dublin, 2003).
On 26 January 1983, eight Peruvian
journalists, most of them from Lima, and their guide,
set out for the rural community of Uchuraccay, a remote
Andean village in the province of Ayacucho, to investigate
reports of human rights abuses. Soon after their arrival,
they were murdered, apparently by the villagers themselves.
Mario Vargas Llosa was asked to head up a commission to
investigate the tragedy.
The Blue Book refers to the official
government publication containing Casementís reports on
his official investigation and interviews with the Barbadians
recruited by the company to work on the rubber stations.
Miscellaneous no.8 (1912) Correspondence respecting
the treatment of British Colonial Subjects and Native
Indians employed in the collection of rubber in the Putumayo
district [Cd. 6266].
Publication of this report had a significant impact on
investment in the Amazon region.
Benjamin SaldaŮa Rocca was a socialist agitator who lived
and worked in Iquitos and galvanised the first protest
against Julio Cťsar Arana and his rubber-gathering regime
through his two newspapers, La Felpa and La
Sanciůn. Nearly complete editions of both newspapers
are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford N.2343 b.10 (1).
In 1908 SaldaŮa Rocca was forced to leave Iquitos and
went to live in Lima, where he died destitute in 1912.
His efforts, however, had a great influence on Walt Hardenburg,
who awakened interest in the Putumayo atrocities in London
Published in 1984, The War of the End of the World
is Vargas Llosaís imaginative interpretation of the Canudos
rebellion which occurred in the backlands of Brazil at
the end of the nineteenth century and inspired one of
Brazilís most lauded novels, Os Sertűes (Rebellion
in the Backlands) by the Brazilian writer Euclydes da
Guardian (London), 4 October 2008.
Historian of the Amazon, John Hemming, has written the
key popular works on Amazon history. For his contribution
to the Casement controversy see ĎRoger Casementís Putumayo
Investigationí in Mary E. Daly (ed.), Roger Casement
in Irish and World History (Dublin, 2005).
Andre Malraux, La Condition Humaine (1933) was
translated initially as Storm in Shanghai (1934)
and later as Manís Estate (1948).