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The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

faber and faber, 2013, 504 p. Translated from the Spanish El sueño del celta by Edith Grossman.

 The Dream of the Celt cover

On the face of it this seems an unlikely endeavour. A Peruvian novelist focusing on a relatively obscure incident in British – and Irish – history? (Then again the Peruvian Jorge Luis Borges was fascinated by Scotland.) But this novelist’s protagonist, (Sir) Roger Casement, was instrumental in exposing the barbarous practices of colonial exploitation in the Congo and later the Amazon, wherein he made his name and for which he received his title, before he took up the cause of Irish independence and was subsequently arrested for treason after visiting Germany during the Great War to seek its government’s help in that endeavour.

The odd numbered chapters here focus on Casement’s life in prison after his trial, in the run-up to his execution. These are the most novelistic parts of the book, displaying his relationship with the guards and the visitors who come to see him, outlining their efforts to obtain a commutation of his death sentence. The even numbered chapters tend to be longer and cover his career in the years leading up to his arrest – and often read more like a history book than a novel. Llosa discounts a large portion of Casement’s diary entries (which many contend were forged by his captors) relating to his homosexual encounters with various men – which damned him not only in the authorities’ eyes, but more crucially in those of the public – as imagined or else wish fulfilment fantasies, giving a novelistic alternative account of several of these incidents, though he treats others as veracious. As Casement’s priest says to him about the suggestion the stories about him were put in the newspapers to counteract the petition for clemency, ‘Nothing can be excluded in the world of politics. It’s not the cleanest of human activities.’ Yes, indeed.

In what is perhaps a comment on the motives of campaigners, a consul in S America tells Casement, “‘I don’t have much admiration for martyrs, Mr Casement. Or for heroes. People who sacrifice themselves for truth or justice often do more harm than the thing they want to change.’”

It is in the ‘historical’ (in the sense of predating the events in the odd numbered chapters) sections though that it is set out how Casement’s experiences in the Congo and the Amazon led him to the idea that Ireland too was a colonised country, albeit with its inhabitants now less harshly treated.

Despite Casement’s conclusion in South America that, We should not permit colonisation to castrate the spirit of the Irish as it has castrated the spirit of the Amazon Indians. We must act now, once and for all, before it is too late and we turn into automata, Llosa also suggests Casement’s trip to Ireland on a U-boat was to try to forestall the Easter Rising rather than encourage it, or even to bring it weapons, as it would not be supported by German action to neutralise the British Army and Royal Navy. When Joseph Plunkett tells him in Germany the Rising is imminent Casement thinks, “No matter how heroic and intrepid they were, the revolutionaries would be crushed by the machinery of the Empire. It would use the opportunity to carry out an implacable purge. The liberation of Ireland would be delayed for another fifty years.”

Plunkett’s response is that, “‘of course we’re going to lose this battle. It’s a question of enduring. Of resisting. For days, weeks. And dying in such a way that our death and our blood will increase the patriotism of the Irish until it becomes an irresistible force.’” Which it did.

The novel’s title The Dream of the Celt comes from that of a poem Casement wrote in 1906 about Ireland’s mythic past. While as a novel it is a little unbalanced and not, perhaps, Llosa at his best, it does act as a useful primer on Casement’s life and times.

Pedant’s corner:- sheriff (illustrates the drawbacks of translation into USian. There are no sheriffs in British prisons. We have prison officers or, at a push, warders. And it wasn’t the prison Governor, since he appears later in the book.) “In Brixton Prison” (in the context of an earlier mention of Pentonville a British translator would just write ‘In Brixton’ here,) “Dr Livingstone, who never wanted to leave African soil or return to England” (return to the UK? Livingstone was Scottish after all.) “The Irish historian ……. she had been” (even though there are 34 words in between ‘historian’ and ‘she’ that ‘she’ is not needed,) “gave Walla a week to fulfil their quota” (its quota,) “where a formation of African soldiers were marching” (a formation … was marching.) “There were also a good number of” (There was also a good number,) “Perhaps one, some of his colleagues” (one, or some, of his colleagues?) “with the Irish insignia on their visors” (I suspect this refers to cap badges. These do not sit on visors,) Casement refers to the British Army as “the most powerful army in the world” (in 1916 the British Army wasn’t. The German one still was,) “the Court of Appeals” (it’s the Court of Appeal.)

A Dismal Choice

The two remaining candidates to be the leader of the Conservative Party and hence the next Prime Minister of the UK show just how the calibre of the country’s politicians – along with the standards of its politics – has fallen.

The choice lies between a blustering buffoon and a piece of rhyming slang.

My comment on the present incumbent when she triggered Article 50 has come true in spades. These are dangerous men.

The buffoon showed himself to be totally unfit for high office in his time as Foreign Secretary when his failure to master any detail of her case led to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being all but confirmed in the eyes of Iran as being in effect a spy, or, at least, working against its government.

The rhyming slang, when Secretary of State for Health, was so inept in the post he managed to unite the almost the entire medical profession against him. And have you seen his eyes?

If either of these two is the answer, what on Earth is the question?

On a related point I’ve seen it suggested that if the buffoon does become PM then it is possible he may appoint T Ronald Dump’s pal (well he likes to think T Ronald is his pal) Nigel Farage as UK ambassador to the US.

Great. Just do it Boris. At least it will get Farage and his poisonous rantings out of this country for a while.

Apparently Jorge Luis Borges characterised the War of Thatcher’s Face as a fight between two bald men over a comb.

The contest between Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Jeremy Richard Streynsham Hunt (don’t their full names just tell you all you need to know about them?) is more like two blind men scrabbling over a hearing aid. Neither can or will do much good with it once they’ve got it.

Science Fiction: a Literary History Edited by Roger Luckhurst

British Library, 2016, 254 p (including 2 p Preface by Adam Roberts, 3 p Introduction by Roger Luckhurst, 2 p Notes on Contributors, 1 p Picture Credits and 18 p Index.

Science Fiction: a Literary History cover

Adam Roberts’s Preface notes SF’s relative ubiquity in today’s world and praises this book as as compact and exhaustive an introduction to the subject as you will find. Roger Luckhurst’s Introduction, by way of reference to Jorge Luis Borges’s short story The Garden of Forking Paths (which presaged many-worlds theory by a considerable time,) acknowledges the impossibility of summing up SF in such a short space as a single book but hopes it will provide pointers to newcomers to the genre and to old hands alike.

The overall approach is more or less chronological. Chapter 11 sees Arthur B Evans tackle early forms of SF in The Beginnings. Roger Luckhurst himself covers the transition From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction in Chapter 2. The Utopian Prospects of 1900-49 are considered by Caroline Edwards in Chapter 32. There is some overlap in time here with Mark Bould’s Chapter 43, Pulp SF and its Others, 1918-39. Malisa Kurtz examines immediate post-war SF in Chapter 54, After the War. Chapter 65 has Rob Latham look at The New Wave ‘Revolution’. Chapter 7’s voyage From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century6 is undertaken by Sherryl Vint. Gerry Canavan brings us up to date with Chapter 8, New Paradigms, After 2001. Each Chapter is repletely referenced and has a list of “What to Read Next” at its end. Imagine my satisfaction when finding I had read most – if not all – of the relevant recommendations. Plus I am in the process of ticking off another right now.

Perhaps the most interesting part (because the most remote) was Chapter 1 wherein Evans identifies many instances of SF or proto-SF from before 1900 and exemplifies two of its fundamental attributes at that time; diversion (imagination) and didacticism (cognition) – or, as Jules Verne’s editor/publisher Pierre-Jules Hetzel put it, instruction that entertains and entertainment that instructs. Well before the twentieth century subterranean or interplanetary adventure became well established – along with time travel – and u- and dystopias have always abounded. It is noted that early interplanetary spaces were modelled on colonial spaces – Space Opera and Star Wars your origins lie here. Indeed the colonial adventure (King Solomon’s Mines etc) can be considered as SF. Examples of the genre emanating from outwith the anglo- or francophone spheres are given due note, including SF works from pre-revolutionary Russia, Africa, Asia, Latin America – and also by black US writers – of which I was not previously aware.

The New Wave chapter laments that “unique talents” such as R A Lafferty, D G Compton, David R Bunch and Edgar Pangborn are little read these days. In one of those omissions Luckhurst acknowledged would occur discussion of one of my favourites from the time, Richard Cowper, is absent.

For anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the genre this is an admirable place to start. It also provides potential new avenues for aficionados to pursue.

Pedant’s corner:- 1“by adding this own critical observations” (his own,) “the series of six novels … are set” (the series is set.) “But all is not perfect.” (But not all is perfect,) Cerillas’ (Cerillas’s.) 2“Has strengthened African-American will and prepared them for an international liberation movement” (“them” is the wrong pronoun here but to avoid it the whole sentence needs recasting.) “An imperial cabal of … plot to undermine the ..” (a cabal plots.) “As the new intake are given” (the new intake is given,.) “Slovakia’s defence strategy, and the novel’s SF element, employs the technique of…” (notwithstanding the parenthetical commas that “and” requires a plural noun; so, employ the technique.) 3“a series of coups weaken the fascist grip” (a series weakens the grip.) “The expedition… encounter” (the expedition encounters.) 4”from embracing the ‘the divine right of machines’” (omit the “the” before the quote,) “as the scientific elite have developed…” (the scientific elite has developed,) “the dark side of the Moon” (every side of the Moon is dark, for 14 days out of 28; I believe the “far side” was intended.) 5fit (fitted,) New Worlds’ (New Worlds’s.) 6ascendency (ascendancy,) a missing full stop, “between this world and the our present” (either “our” or “the”, not both,) “thus rejected earlier version of speculative genres” (versions of,) “it was posed to become” (poised to become.)

The House With The Green Shutters by George Douglas

The Mercat Press, 1986, 288p

The House With The Green Shutters cover

The House With The Green Shutters has an important place in Scottish literature as when it was originally published in 1901 it represented a break from the sentimentality of the Kailyard School and prefigured the work of Hugh MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, among others. A warning, though. The book does contain a wheen of Scots words and phrases which may be a barrier to the more general reader.

The eponymous house, an imposing edifice in the town of Barbie, has been built by John Gourlay to reflect his position in the life of the town where he has a monopoly as a carrier. Gourlay has a “€œguid conceit of himself,”€ as we Scots say, and throws his weight about both metaphorically and – as he has a shortish temper – at times literally. His son, also called John, expects to inherit the carriage business and has neither the motivation nor aptitude to shine at school.

All begins to change with the return to Barbie from a sojourn in Aberdeen of James Wilson, whom Gourlay, in true Scottish fashion, at first dismisses due to his origins, (the, “Ah kent his faither,” reflex – see under ‘ken.’) Wilson soon sets himself up as a rival carrier. The opportunity the coming of the railway presents to Wilson gives him the lever to outwit Gourlay and precipitate a slow spiral of descent. Gourlay’€™s determination to outdo Wilson in everything leads him to send his son to University in Edinburgh where his character faults become magnified.

Throughout the book the author illuminates many aspects of the Scottish character as well as more general traits. The “€œbodies” – perhaps “sweetie wives” would be a more modern description – who gossip and scheme on street corners are especially well depicted. However, as perhaps reflects the times in which the book is set, the women characters are little more than cyphers.

The novel is apparently the first book in the English (sic) language read by Jorge Luis Borges (see under ‘criticism’) who thereafter, “€œwanted to be Scotch.”€ Bizarre.

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