lunes, 9 de junio de 2014

Colonialism as a Smoke Screen: Anti-Nationalist Discourse in Vargas Llosa's El sueño del celta

Ignacio López-Calvo
University of California, Merced

For a printed copy of the published article click here 
Published in Critical Insights. Mario Vargas Llosa. Ed. Juan de Castro. Ipswich,  Massachusetts: Salem Press, 2014. 188-200. Print.

In a first reading, it is easy to assume that Mario Vargas Llosa's historical novel El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt, 2010),  deals mainly with colonialism and Western modernity. The characters' engagement in open criticism of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902; Conrad is one of the characters in the novel) may lead the reader to think that Vargas Llosa's novel is a reaction to Conrad's, perhaps an outcome of what Harold Bloom has called "the anxiety of influence." The Irish historian Alice Stopford Green, for instance, tells her friend Roger Casement, the novel's protagonist based on the real-life British diplomat turned Irish revolutionary Sir Roger David Casement (1864-1916), that Conrad's view of human beings in Heart of Darkness is misguided: "That novel is a parable according to which Africa turns the civilized Europeans who go there into barbarians. Your Congo report showed the opposite. That we Europeans were the ones who brought the worst barbarities there. Besides, you were in Africa for twenty years without become a savage. In fact, you came back more civilized than when you left here believing in the virtues of colonialism and the Empire" (54). Casement responds by stating that while Conrad claimed that Congo brought out the worst possible moral corruption from both blacks and whites, he was convinced that Heart of Darkness actually describes an apocalyptic vision of hell, rather than Congolese reality or history. Paradoxically, the protagonist seems to prove Conrad right through his constant fear that if he stays in Congo any longer, he will end up going insane and punishing the Congolese like the other Europeans, "Because that is what happens to Europeans in this damned country" (80). I argue, however, that the topics of colonialism and Western modernity, while important in the novel and in themselves (as Nicholas Birns has keenly demonstrated), are a sort of smoke screen for the main thrust in the novel: the discussion of the flaws of nationalist discourse, particularly in its most radical form.

            In numerous interviews, Vargas Llosa has described nationalism of all kinds as a catastrophe, a disease, and an aberration. He considers it the biggest challenge to a culture of freedom and democracy: "Nationalism is the culture of the uneducated, an ideological entelechy constructed in a manner as obtuse and primitive as racism (to which it is closely related) that makes belonging to a collectivist abstraction--the nation--the supreme value and the privileged credential of an individual."[1] Likewise, in his article "The Culture of Liberty," Vargas Llosa denounces the dangers of nationalist perspectives' "parochial, exclusionary, and confused vision" for cultural life and personal freedom: "Seeking to impose a cultural identity on a people is equivalent to locking them in a prison and denying them the most precious of liberties--that of choosing what, how, and who they want to be" (n.p.). The author often links nationalism, even when it "plays" democracy, to violence, populist dictatorship, and totalitarianism. In an interview with Tulio Demicheli, for instance, Vargas Llosa, referring to nationalist parties and terrorist groups in Spain, argues:

                        I believe that it is a disease; in practice, a rejection of the Other because it is  
                        the completely utopian aspiration of moving toward racially, religiously
                        or ideologically homogenous societies. This is not democratic or realistic, because all
                        societies have evolved and diversified . . . if you dig the ideological roots
                        of nationalism, they are a rejection of democratic forms, a rejection of coexistence
                        in diversity, which is the essence of democracy. (n.p.)[2]

Juan de Castro has associated Vargas Llosa's rejection of nationalism as an ideological fiction based on collective identity with his fondness for neoliberalism, globalization, modernization, and the free market: "Vargas Llosa has also become a passionate critic of nationalism and any version of local or regional identity that is opposed to 'a world citizenship' (66).  One of the logical consequences of neoliberalism is a celebration of globalization—which is after all the result of the expansion of free-markets across the globe" (Mario Vargas Llosa 38).

            Like many of Vargas Llosa's protagonists, Roger Casement, the protagonist of El sueño, is a fanatic, a man who allows his obsessions and his "personal and social demons" (to use Vargas Llosa's own terms) to ruin his life. As Efraín Kristal points out, in the novels published in the twenty-first century,

                     Vargas Llosa remains as concerned with the mindset of those disposed to fight for their
                     utopias, but he no longer deplores them—as he did in the 1090s—as hopeless fanatics or
                     misguided utopians with grotesque convictions.  . . His focus has shifted from the
                     dreadful consequences of fanaticism, to an empathetic exploration of the traumas and
                     suffering that turn some individuals into enemies of the world. (“From Utopia to
                     Reconciliation” 131)

Indeed, the author's empathy and compassion for Roger Casement, despite his being described as a "radical nationalist" (19), is apparent throughout the plot and especially in the novel's epilogue. This, however, does not prevent Vargas Llosa from using the historical character as an exemplum of the dangers of radical nationalism.


Nationalism, Madness, and Religion

            With this goal in mind, the narrator resorts to two efficient comparisons that run throughout the plot: he sometimes identifies nationalism/patriotism with madness, other times with the fanatic religious fervor of medieval crusaders and the first Christian martyrs. Casement often describes his mission in religious terms, vowing to make amends and to redeem his sins of youth (his collaboration in the colonization of Congo) by documenting the abuses committed by Europeans in the Congo Free State while it was under the personal control of King Leopold II of Belgium in Congo. The same religious vocabulary is used to analyze patriotism and nationalism. Casement realizes, for example, that the saint and the warrior embody two of the main prototypes of the Irishman. In Amazonia, he likewise declares that evil "can reveal itself openly and perpetrate the worst monstrosities without the justifications of patriotism or religion" (234).  Other characters, such as the Irish nationalist Robert Monteith, also highlight the fellowship between religion and patriotism: "To die fighting for your homeland is a death as honorable as dying for your family or your faith. Don't you agree?" (342).

            Paradoxically, while the evocation of blind religious faith is used to discredit nationalistic discourse, all religious characters in El sueño are admirable. As stated, it is not their religious practices and beliefs that Vargas Llosa compares with radical nationalism, but those of the crusaders and other religious zealots. To leave no doubt about the pathological downturn that the protagonist's obsession with nationalism, patriotism, and Ireland's independence has taken, he admits on four different occasions his fear of losing his sanity. We find the first hint of Casement's obsessive or fanatic leanings at the end of the second chapter when, after three trips to Africa, he announces that he will move there with such fervor that his uncle Edward compares it to that of Medieval crusaders. Later, the subjective narrator also compares other Irish nationalists, such as Patrick Pearse, the founder of two Gaelic-language schools who wants to this language to be the official language of Ireland again, with crusaders: "Roger came to feel a great affinity for the radical, intransigent crusader for Gaelic and independence that Pearse was" (306-07).[3] These analogies become increasingly negative, as can be seen when Father Crotty compares the Irish radical nationalist Joseph Plunkett with the crusaders:

                        His Christianity is that of the Christians who died in Roman circuses, devoured by   
                        wild beasts. But also of the Crusaders who reconquered Jerusalem by killing all the
                        ungodly Jews and Muslims they encountered, including women and children. The
                        same burning zeal, the same glorification of blood and war. I confess, Roger, that
                        people like him, even though they may be the ones who make history, fill me with
                        more fear than admiration. (330)

            Even Casement is alarmed by "The somewhat mad romanticism of Joseph Plunkett and Patrick Pearse" (328) and the latter's ominous description of Irish patriots as the contemporary version of the first Christian martyrs. The use of the word "mad" in this quotation is yet another link between nationalism and madness. In one of his essays, Pearse had written that Irish patriots' blood would be the seed of their country's freedom. Casement will later realize that although Pearse and Plunkett are aware of the inevitability of a defeat against the military might of the British Empire, they still dream that their own patriotic immolation and martyrdom will one day inspire a long-lasting Irish rebellion that will ultimately lead to independence: "It's a question of a hundred revolutionaries being born for each one of us who dies. Isn't that what happened with Christianity? (331). The Irish nationalists, therefore, take, once again, a page out of the history of religion. In the end, Casement ends up not only understanding their will to become the symbol that will energize Irish rebellion, but also wishing he could have joined this rebellion of "Poets and mystics" (279). In consonance with the constant links between religious faith and nationalist fanaticism in the novel, Pearse and Plunkett openly declare the mystic nature of their struggle and the sculptor Herbert Ward lightheartedly calls his friend Casement a mystic.

Nationalism and Indigenism 

            In La utopía arcaica (The Archaic Utopia, 1996), Vargas Llosa presents indigenist discourse as a "historical-political fiction" (68) and dismisses Inca Garcilaso de la Vega's foretelling that Quechua culture and language would be preserved throughout the centuries, waiting for the right moment to be restored:

                        Luis E. Valcárcel is the first Peruvian intellectual of the twentieth century to develop
                        in such an explicit and coherent way the Andeanist discourse against the coast and
                        Lima. He was also the one who revived in the most influential way the archaic utopia
                        inaugurated by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega in his Royal Commentaries of the Incas
                        about a Quechua race and culture metaphysically preserved throughout history,
                        waiting for its moment to restore, in a great crash--an Andean storm--, in modern
                        times, that remote society of equal, healthy, and free from greed and commercial 
                        calculation beings, which the Inca Empire embodied and that the Conquest had
                        undone. (7)

Similarly, in El sueño the author hardly shows his skepticism about the nationalist Gaelic League's goal of getting rid of English language and culture to restore Irish language, sports, and traditions: "They dreamed of a separate Ireland, safe from destructive modern industrialism, living a bucolic, rural life, liberated from the British Empire" (90).This evokes the romanticized fictions and the utopian overtones in both nationalist and indigenist discourses that Vargas Llosa often derides. Even Casement himself wonders whether his friends Eoin MacNeill and Pearse's dream of making Gaelic the mother tongue of all Irish people again is feasible and realistic: "English had become the way to communicate, speak, be, and feel for an immense majority of the Irish, and trying to renounce it was a political whim whose only result would be a Babelic confusion that would culturally transform his Ireland into an archaeological curiosity, isolated from the rest of the world. Was it worth it?" (302-03). In this novel, therefore, Vargas Llosa carries out an ideological appropriation of a nationalist leader's voice in order to criticize nationalist discourse itself.

            This disparaging skepticism, albeit this time of a more veiled nature, resurfaces when the narrator mentions a poem written by Casement, which lends its title to the novel: "in September 1906, before leaving for Santos, he wrote a long epic poem, 'The Dream of the Celt,' about the mythic past of Ireland" (110). Behind the guise of a seemingly innocuous statement, we must note the emphasis on an ahistorical, mythical past that suggests the collective fantasy, the dangerous and anti-democratic ideological fictions on which, according to the author, both nationalism and indigenism are founded. To continue with the comparison between Vargas Llosa's anti-indigenist and anti-nationalist arguments, whereas La utopía arcaica criticizes the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui's ignorance of indigenous culture, even though, according to Vargas Llosa, he appropriated their plight for his own political goals, El sueño presents a hardly veiled mockery of Casement's futile attempts at learning Gaelic, becoming more familiar with Irish culture, and understanding the seanchai (traditional, Irish, itinerant storytellers). In several passages, Casement, who ends up converting to Catholicism seemingly because he associates it with Irish nationalism, confesses his lack of familiarity with either Catholicism or Irish history, culture, and language. Here, it is not coincidence that patriotism and religion go hand in hand again.

            Following up with his argumentation against indigenism in El hablador (The Storyteller, 1987) and Lituma en los Andes (Death in the Andes, 1993), in El sueño Vargas Llosa continues to wrestle with the issue of the incorporation of indigenous people into the westernized national life of the rest of Peru. Kristal maintains that the author “has not resolved his own dilemmas about the preservation or eventual modernization of indigenous cultures” (Temptation 157). Yet it seems quite clear in these three novels that he does support the incorporation of Amazonian and Andean indigenous people into Western modernity. As a case in point, in a conversation between Casement and Víctor Israel, a Jewish Maltese rubber plantation owner, the latter mocks the idea of allowing Amazonia to continue existing in the Stone Age, instead of using its raw material wealth to modernize Peru and to improve Peruvians' living standards. Casement's response seems to turn him into Vargas Llosa's alter ego, as he justifies the economic exploitation of Amazonia and the incorporation of its indigenous people into western culture: "'Amazonia is a great emporium of resources, no doubt,' Roger agreed, without becoming agitated. 'Nothing more just than that Peru should take advantage of it. But not by abusing the natives, or hunting them down like animals, or forcing them to work as slaves. Rather, by incorporating them into civilization by means of schools, hospitals, and churches'" (162).

            In keeping with the polyphonic approach of the novel, in Congo Casement had already bemoaned the cruel customs and religious practices of "those men from another time" (43) who "seemed mired in the depths of time" (42), including cannibalism, the sacrifice of twins and harelipped babies, as well as the killing of servants and slaves to bury them along with their masters. For the same reasons, several characters, including Casement and the Baptist missionary Theodore Horte, at one point or another praise the "civilizing" potential of colonialism to free African natives from primitivism, superstition, slavery, cannibalism, lack of hygiene, and other scourges. They often claim that local populations live in the past and therefore need to be brought up to par with present time, always represented by Western modernity. Once the protagonist realizes the big lie that is colonialism, however, he begins to encourage others to see the world from the point of view of the indigenous victims. More importantly, unlike the perspective offered in El hablador and Lituma en los Andes, now the narrative voice, using free indirect style and avoiding any sort of ontological ambiguities, ironically condemns Pablo Zumaeta's and other rubber plantation chiefs' habit of justifying "the worst atrocities against pagans who, of course, were always cannibals and killers of their own children" (133). As seen in this quotation, the narrator presents the oppressors' accusations as a mere excuse for conquest, inhumane treatment, and brutal exploitation. There is no doubt in the narrator's or the protagonist's minds that the particular brand of western "civilization" that colonizers and rubber plantation owners are trying to impose in Congo and in the Amazonian region of Putumayo will only bring massive genocides.

Nationalism and the Irrational Side of Human Nature

            Vargas Llosa vindicates and restores the memory of this historical character as a freedom-fighter who gave his life and savings to the struggle against colonialism, for the defense of indigenous rights, and for Ireland's emancipation. The author tries to elicit his readers' empathy by warning early, through an epigraph taken from the Uruguayan essayist José Enrique Rodó's Motivos de Proteo (Proteus's Motivations, 1909), about the ambiguities of human nature. Casement's complex psychology turns him into an ideal literary character for Vargas Llosa, whose opus has often dealt with the leitmotiv of the irrational side of human nature and humans’ need to create fictions. El sueño lets us know that, like all human beings, Casement had weaknesses and personal flaws. Besides his tendency to radicalism and fanaticism, there may be a chance that he was a pedophile. Among the many contrasts and contradictions of his personality, he went from admiring the British Empire and working tirelessly on its behalf to conspiring against it and seeking Germany's assistance for his separatist aspirations during World War I. In fact, the British diplomat Sir Roger Casement devotes part of his life to Ireland's independence, while concomitantly serving the British government in Africa and South America so well that he attains British knighthood. Thus, in the last paragraph of Chapter VI, we learn that he was awarded with the Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for foreign and diplomatic service only one day after declaring his hatred for the British Empire in an argument with his uncle Roger. Casement also went from abhorring the ominous fanaticism of the Irish nationalists he meets to becoming as radical as them. Along with the warning in the epigraph, Vargas Llosa offers a veiled justification of his protagonist's actions by reminding us that "politics, like everything else connected to power, at times brought to light the best in a human being--idealism, heroism, sacrifice, generosity--but also the worst--cruelty, envy, resentment, pride" (308).

            The reader can observe Casement's progressive political radicalization through the eyes of his friend Herbert Ward. At first, we are told, he found a certain charm in Casement's "conversion" to nationalism (note the religious connotations of the term). Yet in his letters, Ward would warn his friend about the potential dangers of this ideology: "he joked about the dangers of 'patriotic fanaticism' and reminded him of Dr. Johnson's phrase, according to which 'patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel'" (141). Still not taking his friend's new ideological turn seriously, Ward continues to mock glitzy jingoism, whose love for flags, hymns, and uniforms is indicative of its provincial outlook, exhorting him to "return to reality and leave 'the dream of the Celt' into which he had retreated" (210; incidentally, this sentence reveals the negative connotation of the novel's title). With time, however, the tone of his warnings changes dramatically: Ward begins to condemn Casement's fanaticism and extremism. He criticizes, in particular, his increasing intolerance and his tendency to resort to yelling, instead of reasoning. Much to Casement's chagrin, as a result one day Ward sends him a letter that ends their long-lived friendship. Paradoxically, Casement notices that this letter exudes the same patriotic sentiment that his former friend had always despised as provincial. However, he also begins to wonder whether Ward is right: "Am I turning into a fanatic? He would ask himself from then on, at times with alarm" (305). The Irish historian Alice Stopford Green and the Irish-born playwright George Bernard Shaw also encourage their intellectual friends to avoid falling into an empty patriotism that may become a substitute for reason, lucidity, and intelligence.

            Casement is, therefore, a Quixotic figure who ends up in poverty because he donated most of his savings to humanitarian and nationalist organizations. Blinded by his hatred of the British Empire and determined to fight for justice in Congo, Peru, and Ireland, he fearlessly defies death on several occasions. Yet, as forewarned in the epigraph, the protagonist also has a darker side: like the other fanatic protagonists in Vargas Llosa's novels, he knows no limitations in the fulfillment of what he considers his duty. For example, when the other members of the British commission argue that it is time to return to England because they have accumulated enough information, Casement insists on staying in Putumayo to gather new data that may make his report more exhaustive and convincing. In reality, however, his desire to stay has to do with his new obsession with meeting Armando Normand, the most sadistic and cruel of all the Peruvian Amazon Company's chiefs. In the narrator's words, "He was rather perversely curious to meet him" (182).

            During his trips to Africa, Casement loses his innocence upon discovering the true nature of colonization. Later, he claims to have discovered his own country by comparing Ireland's subjugation to England to the situation of the Congo Free State under the colonization of King Leopold II's Belgium. After denying it for years, the protagonist finally admits that Ireland, like the Congo Free State, is also a colony. Now, his greatest fear and obsession is that, unless his compatriots rebel soon enough against British colonization, they will end up, like the native people in Amazonia and Congo, losing their soul, becoming fatalistic automatons, and suffering the same process of moral disintegration that will render them helpless. During his stay in Africa, there is also a process of self-discovery through which he finds his own sexual orientation. While neither the plot nor the epilogue present Casement's homosexuality as a negative trait, there is a hint at a truly dark side of the protagonist, his possible pedophiliac behavior: "a gloomy aureole of homosexuality and pedophilia surrounded his image throughout all of the twentieth century" (354), states the author in the epilogue. The British government takes revenge on Casement for his conspiracy against the Empire not only by hanging him, but also by making his personal diaries public, which ruins his reputation even more. In them, the usually mild-mannered protagonist uses lewd and obscene language to describe his personal encounters with young men and, although this is purposely unclear in the novel, perhaps also with boys. According to both the narrative voice in the plot and Vargas Llosa in the epilogue, many of the scenes described in the diary where he pays young men to have sex with him were probably only exaggerations or described his sexual desires, rather than his life experiences. In any case, they affected public opinion for decades not only in England but also in Ireland, where his contribution to the struggle for independence was not acknowledged until much later.


            El sueño underscores the difficulties of reconstructing historical events and of judging historical figures. In fact, the discipline of history is described in the novel as "a branch of fable-writing attempting to be science" [215] and disparaged as a colonizing tool used by the British to make Irish students believe that their country had no history worth remembering. Casement himself bemoans that history will condemn him for leading the Easter Rebellion of April 24, 1916, even though, considering it a suicidal enterprise, he actually tried to stop it. The reason he was unsuccessful was precisely his lack of power and influence within the Irish separatist movement. By contrast, it is not too difficult to figure out the author's unambiguous stand for the westernization of indigenous cultures and against nationalist discourse, discredited (like indigenism in other novels) as a dangerous ideology and an anachronistic, naïve fiction. Vargas Llosa's harshest criticism in this historical novel is not truly addressed at his flawed, yet still heroic protagonist, but rather, indirectly, at present-day nationalist discourses in Europe and Latin America. El sueño is not an accusation against Casement, but an exploration of the personal, societal, and cultural traumas that led this epic hero to turn into a pathologically fanatic nationalist. In this sense, Birns has rightfully praised "Vargas Llosa’s masterful ability to be at once objective and empathetic about a character without endorsing that character’s ideology at all" (18). The protagonist, therefore, is an excuse to expose the dangers of nationalism in previous decades as well as today. Paradoxically, the novel ends up acknowledging that the romantic heroism of those "radicals" who gave their life for their country's freedom during the Easter Rebellion did achieve their objective of raising awareness among their compatriots and spurring them into anti-colonialist action. Today, it is widely acknowledged by historians that this uprising spawned events that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921, a fact that seems to undermine Vargas Llosa's arguments against nationalism.

Works Cited
Birns, Nicholas. "Tricontinental Modernities: Vargas Llosa's Late Turn against Imperialism in El
            sueño del celta." Transmodernity 2.2 (2012): 14-32. Print.
De Castro, Juan. Mario Vargas Llosa: Public Intellectual in Neoliberal Latin America. Tucson:
            University of Arizona Press, 2011. Print.
Demicheli, Tulio. "Mario Vargas Llosa: "El PSOE se ha vuelto el caballo de Troya de
            los nacionalismos.'" Cultura. 20 May 2007. 1 Sept. 2013. N.p. Web.
Kristal, Efraín. “From Utopia to Reconciliation: The Way to Paradise, The Bad Girl, and The
            Dream of the Celt.” The Cambridge Companion to Mario Vargas Llosa.  Kristal, Efrain and
           John King, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 129-47.  Print.
---.  Temptation of the Word. The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa. Nashville: Vanderbilt University
           Press, 1998. Print.
Vargas Llosa, Mario. "The Culture of Liberty" Foreign Policy 122 (Jan.-Feb. 2001): 66-71. Print.
---. Death in the Andes. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996. Print.
---. The Dream of the Celt. Trans. Edith Grossman. London: Bloomsbury House, 2012. Print.

---. "Raza, botas y nacionalismo." Tribuna: Piedra de Toque. El Paí 15 Jan. 2006. 1 Sept. 2013.
            N.p. Web. 

---. The Storyteller. Trans. Helen Lane. New York: Farrar Struaus Giroux, 1989. Print.

---. El sueño del celta. New York: Alfaguara, 2010. Print.

---. La utopía arcaica: José María Arguedas y las ficciones del indigenismo. Mexico City: Fondo de 
           Cultura Económica de México, 1996. Print.




[1] "El nacionalismo es la cultura de los incultos, una entelequia ideológica construida de manera tan obtusa y primaria como el racismo (y su correlato inevitable), que hace de la pertenencia a una abstracción colectivista--la nación—el valor supremo y la credencial privilegiada de un individuo" ("Raza, botas" n.p.).
[2] "Claro que es una enfermedad; en la práctica, un rechazo del otro porque es la aspiración completamente utópica de ir hacia sociedades racial, religiosa o ideológicamente homogéneas. Y eso no es democrático y, además, no es realista, porque todas las sociedades han evolucionado y se han diversificado . . . si usted escarba en las raíces ideológicas del nacionalismo, éstas son un rechazo de las formas democráticas, un rechazo a la coexistencia en la diversidad, que es la esencia de la democracia" (n.p.).
[3] "Roger llegó a sentir gran simpatía por ese cruzado radical e intransigente del gaélico y la independencia que era Pearse" (390).
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