Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summaries: Mario Vargas Llosa and His Precursors

[by Nicole O’Neill]

Session #1

Before diving into Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa, we started our first session with a discussion of Louis Borges’ essay, Kafka and his Precursors:

“Every writer creates his own precursors.” “Creates” is the key word in this phrase, which is very active, and gives the writer power. Precursors do not depend on a writer’s exposure to those earlier writers. “Creation” has to do with our perception when we read his or her work. Often writers are influenced without direct exposure because of the prevailing culture. This results in privileged classes not taking responsibility for cultural messages and results in a continuation of specific social realities and “truths”.

Authors are viewed differently in different time periods. When we look at literature we are looking at it not at the time it was written, but in the culture and society in which you read it. There is an active choice by some writers to focus on specific themes and ideas, and authors can also create things that make you view the writer’s precursors in a different way.

While Kafka is interested in paradoxes and the absurd, Borges is talking about what the paradoxes are in writing and creating. So Borges is taking a new look at the influence model. Often, readers think “here are the chronological canonical texts” that I need to read to understand the work of later writers. Borges is saying that literature is not chronological. If we think chronologically you cannot change the people before you…… but maybe we are constantly changing the meaning of older books when we read. Borges is trying to get us to think about our preconceptions about how literature unfolds. One of the great things about literature is that it happens associatively. When we identify with someone’s expression, an author, a style, this brings together things that were previously disparate in our minds.

After this fascinating discussion we moved on to the main event, Dream of the Celt:

Roger Casement, the main character in Dream of the Celt, is a character between worlds. This is a traditional choice of Peruvian novelists, who often contrast different environments such as city vs. country or Latin America vs. Europe. Casement is ambiguous in many ways. He is Irish serving in the British service, and, causing him even more internal conflict, is an Anglo-Irishman (which means he belongs to the privileged upper-class).

The concept of shame plays a central role throughout the novel. Casement expresses no shame about his sexual orientation (homosexual) in his conversation with his cousin Gee, but on the other hand he “blushes,” which is a physical visceral response. Besides having his sexuality publically exposed, Casement has two other sources of shame while in prison: that he naively accepted the paternalistic, altruistic view of colonialism, and that people he loves have been harmed by his choices. The latter is very immediate to Casement because Gee lost her beloved job at the hospital due to his notoriety. It may be true that in this heroic fashion Casement does not feel ashamed of his sexuality. On the other hand, it is very plausible that to reassure and comfort his cousin Casement is saying things he doesn’t mean.


Session #2

We started our second session with the idea that Mario Vargas Llosa’s political memoir, Fish in the Water, has a structure similar to Dream of the Celt. Fish in the Water is separated into sections of alternating chapters between Vargas Llosa’s youth and his political campaign. In comparison, Dream of the Celt is divided between Casement’s youth, his time in prison before his execution, and his anti-colonial work in Ireland, the Congo, and the Amazon. This raises the question: Is Vargas Llosa making a comment about his own life when he talks about Roger Casement?

In both the Amazon and the Congo the colonizers use indigenous customs of cannibalism and infanticide to dehumanize the natives and justify their imperialist projects.

The first time an indigenous person speaks in the novel is in chapter ten, when Casement interviews Eponim Thomas Campbell, a man from Barbados who is completely complicit in the system. Roger accepts that Campbell has killed indigenous people but that he was also exploited. It is striking that the first person of color who really speaks is an oppressor who would have been victimized in his ancestral homeland. Here Llosa is touching on the fact that cruel customs can be used in myriad ways.

Casement is shocked by the indigenous response to exploitation. They don’t object to the exploitation as a concept, but just want to make the exploitation bearable. The whole system of colonialism was justified on the premise of preventing the slave trade, but then a village is forced to sell children into slavery to meet obligations.

As an idealist, Casement initially bought into the imperialist system in the Congo. In contrast his coworkers saw through it from the start. Even when Casement comes to understand the system is exploitative, he doesn’t leave. This raises the question, is he working for change from within the system?   It is interesting that Roger takes his experience in the Congo and in Brazil and then decided the most heinous colonialism is in Ireland.

In the Amazon slavery was abolished, but even the officials have their servant girls, and there is no other place for them to go.   There is agreement that the system is monstrous, but there is no clear alternative or solution. The missionaries argue “What is the solution, there is none, we cannot find it.” They are feeling compassion fatigue.   Unlike philanthropists discussing slaveries in London salons, they are dealing with these issues on the ground.  We also see Casement’s compassion fatigue at the end of this chapter with “the same old story. The never ending story.”


Session #3

To start our third session we talked about how Vargas Llosa has Roger Casement think about his life in terms of contradictions. Casement’s first dream is that imperialism works. When that dream crumbles, he replaces it with his second dream of becoming a human rights activist. Over time Casement becomes exhausted and doubts that his work is making a difference, which leads to his third dream, Irish nationalism.

Vargas Llosa uses the two young Amazonian boys to illustrate that these contradictions are part of the universal human condition. Still believing in civilization, Casement plans to educate these boys. He takes them with him to Barbados, then England, then back home, and they fit nowhere. Although the boys like the education, they don’t want to be outcasts and have to take their clothes off and have their scars ogled. They were victims of curiosity. It isn’t the education or the civilization that was the problem. It was the people who unintentionally make the kids feel uncomfortable.

As an idealist, Casement makes the switch to Irish nationalism when he comes to believe that the indigenous people cannot expect justice from the Peruvian state. Coming in as an outsider as a member of a commission like Casement makes it easy to have an objective stance. On the other hand, Tizon, the company official who helps the commissioners, is crushed by the revelations of barbarism. Tizon is more heroic because Casement doesn’t have anything to lose. It is Casement’s job to point out the problems, which is far easier than effecting change. This is why bad things happen in the world. We think it is supposed to be absolutely clear what we are supposed to do, but the day to day concerns blind us to larger horrors. These horrors feed into a traumatization that leads you to paralysis, an inability to rebel, and eventually demoralization.

There was an outrage that developed after both of Casement’s reports to the British government, but Leopold’s government is not the private industrial exploitation taking place in Peru. One is a company and one is a government, but “it all boils down to greed.” At the same time, it is important to recognize that these are two continents that are experiencing two very different atrocities each with its own horrificness. Llosa gives so much detail about Peru that he didn’t give about the Congo…..   He has a richer investment in telling the tale of the Amazon.

In terms of Vargas Llosa’s central message there is a universality but in the details there is a difference between the Congo and the Amazon. We come away with a message of dependence on the Peruvian Amazon Company by the state. Peru cannot make a decision that can make a difference. Leopold on the other hand could make his own decisions for an immediate effect.   In both cases there are individuals holding the purse strings. It is the details that Casement delivers that crush the London officials into horror.

The other details that horrify the British are the homosexual details in Casement’s diary, some of which are true and some of which are complete fantasy. All of them are sexually explicit. Different people use diaries for different reasons, but we don’t expect a diary to be complete fantasy. However Casement is just making awesome sex up. Vargas Llosa uses Casement’s fantastical diary entries to put doubt in our minds about his reports. If Casement is lying to himself in the diaries, does he carry some of this into his official writing?


Session #4

Between our third and fourth session some of our group was able to visit the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition on the Democratic Republic of Congo, The Enclave. These group members were struck by the juxtaposition of surprising beauty with terrible things happening. There is joy and dancing and music in the exhibit, not just war and violence. So the art piece creates a fuller sense of humanity, not just a fascination with violence.

We then turned our discussion to how Casement’s idealism rams up against reality in the Irish nationalist movement. He wants to be the hero outsider who comes in to save the day. He doesn’t like the actual process of politics, the discussions, the need for consensus. Also, Casement is blind to opponents in the nationalist movement because “everyone showed him respect,” but he was a lot more astute in the Amazon and the Congo. Just because people don’t disagree with you to your face doesn’t mean they agree with you and support you.

Casement is increasingly self-absorbed and isolated. He isn’t connecting with people in the Irish Brigade, and his worldview is increasingly narrowed. While he is respected in the nationalist movement, he is on its periphery, running his own agenda with the Germany project. In this section of the novel, Vargas Llosa increasingly portrays Casement as a Don Quixote figure. In the space of one page Vargas Llosa has Casement being made uneasy by the idea of Irish Nationalists as martyrs, and then holding martyrdom up as an ideal. Not only does Casement idealize everything, including his sexual relationship with the Norwegian, he also intellectualizes everything.

Intellectualizing around the pain of isolation and betrayal is a defense mechanism on Casement’s part. A way to deal with the extreme marginalization of his homosexuality. There are different parts of our personalities that prevail at time. Casement is trying to make peace with himself at the end of his life and uses intellectualization as a way of achieving this.

The times he prays he feels he doesn’t connect with God, and this mirrors the way he feels a longing for a mate, a partner. There are repeated references to the mystics, and mystics talk about relating with God in terms of sexuality. This touchstone in the book melds the personal and the religious relationship issues.

Roger’s execution is made powerful by the details: the executioners measuring the rope, the whisper in the ear about holding his breath, Casement’s refusal to eat. The ambiguity at the end is very interesting. Llosa puts the “sir” and the “please sir” is in English in the original at the end. Grossman, the interpreter, adds ambiguity at the end about the afterlife that Llosa doesn’t have. Casement’s dreams all die. Irish nationalism is his last dream and ends in disillusionment. His final dream is that of an afterlife and a connection with God. Llosa might be saying that this is another illusion, another fantasy, that can’t be fulfilled.


Session #5

In our fifth session we began our discussion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which offers a different account of colonialism and exploitation in the Congo than Vargas Llosa’s Dream of the Celt.

At the beginning of the author’s note (in the 4th edition) Conrad is saying that this novel is largely the result of experience. He is saying that this is not about what happened to him. Conrad’s readers do not have the reference points to understand what is coming. The author’s note can be seen as the response to the critics and the speculation about the factual reality. His purpose here is to obscure, and make the novel more ambiguous. Complication is clarification… Conrad is clarifying his artistic purpose, not answering what critics want to know (the factual reality of the novel).

Africa is set up as a foil for Europe to show how advanced and far along Europe is and how Europe and Europeans can help Africa. Conrad’s focus is not colonization itself. It is about the colonizers and what happens to them in Africa. The Europeans are corrupted by Africa, not the natives necessarily, just Africa. They have all the rules and structures of civilization, but when Europeans are placed outside the rules in a place where anything goes what happens then? Europeans’ norms are stripped away. Are they lost? Is there a central, core morality or are we all just held in check by conventions?

When looking at the Africans, the main question is their humanity. Are they being depicted as truly human, or are they being portrayed as animalistic? Are comparisons being made that show universality of humanness? Or are these people being shown as lower beings who are described as “part of nature” and part of the animalistic world? Conrad isn’t talking about their thoughts or feelings. Instead he is giving physical descriptions. Maybe he is trying to say that the Africans people are good at what they are doing and they are artistic and good singers, but at the same time his western perspective as a colonizer really comes through.

Native people in literature are generally used as a mirror for Western society and have nothing to do with the actual native people. In this novel the Africans aren’t even a mirror. They are just in the background being chained up. The purpose here is not to teach us about the Congo, unlike Llosa, whose work does give a lot of good information about Africa and Africans.

Both Conrad and Vargas Llosa are very interested the idea of lies versus truth. In Heart of Darkness Marlo is placed in the “gang of virtue” that Kurtz is in. There is an envy of the power that the high moral position gives you. It is not jealousy of being the emissary of Europe. It is jealousy of the power and the riches that come with this. Marlo is the one person among the colonizers who continues to be grounded. He is also the white man who actually works.

Conrad uses Marlo as an example of how labor gives us a way to find ourselves. This contrasts wildly with the work that Africans are asked to do. The natives are shown as these figures under the tree. They are emaciated and exhausted and dying, showing the injustices of the work they are asked to do. They are being worked to death. In contrast Marlo’s work is voluntary. There is a contrast between the horrible efficiency of violence at the same time that there is a lot of lying around and complete inefficiency of colonialism itself.


Session #6

Our sixth and final meeting started with a discussion of how Conrad depicts Europeans’ terror of facing the humanity of the people they are oppressing.

Conrad locates Heart of Darkness in a prehistoric era. So this area is a before-history. As opposed to Europeans who have a rich and detailed history. At the time of writing people were judged and categorized depending on the place in history that their nationality represents.

We still have a fascination with the “untouched nations,” and there is still a spectator sport attitude towards the few peoples like this that are left. Intellectuals felt this way at the time of “Heart of Darkness” about people representing the values and cultures of different historical time periods. This is still very prevalent culturally, even though the attitude towards these people in academic circles has changed.

In contrast, Kurtz lost the essential “European” goal of the company. “There was nothing profitable in the heads being there.” This is really the company distancing themselves from the reality of colonialism in Africa. Kurtz is an ideology. He is the symbol of hyper-colonialism, and seems to be an idea instead of a physical presence. Or is he someone that has moved away from the exploitation and colonialism of the company? But he has only moved towards the Africans to the degree that they give him a sense of wealth and importance as a person.

So Marlo is interested in Kurtz because Kurtz has rejected the conventions of European society. What Kurtz has done is not only reject the conventions of European society, but he has also created a society without any sense of what is right or just.   Kurtz has no sense of responsibility. In any civilization there are rules, and these have to do with responsibilities. Responsibilities in the home, of the government towards the society, these are the justification for the rules. If you don’t have this sense of responsibility, then what are the rules there for? Kurtz has no purpose. That is what makes him empty.

We see the African woman’s power in that everyone on the shore took up her cry. She is essentially a fantasy, portraying sexuality. This is something that explains Kurtz’ attraction to abandoning European notions. He wants to enter a world where sexuality is less taboo. In contrast, “the intended” is kept in ignorance. Her mooring is now based on a lie, on the belief that Kurtz’s last words were her name. The novel ends on lies. On the other hand, the African woman is the exoticised version of woman. Conrad paints the purity of British womanhood as a comparison to the native women who help take the British out of the colonizers.

The fact that “the intended” is told that Kurtz’ last word was her name when his actual last words were “the horror, the horror” equates “the intended” and western civilization with the horror.   The association of “the intended” with death is powerful at the end. Her paleness is a death-like pallor and she is all in black. So the horror is also death itself. Women are associated with this inscrutability because they are tied with birth and death.

“She came abreast of the steamer, stood still and faced us. Suddenly she opened her bare arms and threw them up rigid above her head….gathering the steamer in a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence fell ….” She meets their gaze in such a challenging manner. She is completely antithetical to the intended. But they are both in mourning. Reading Vargas Llosa first gives a different way of thinking about Heart of Darkness.   This gives a lot more layers of complexity to Conrad’s work.

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