Mario Vargas Llosa must be one of the few great writers ever to have argued that society should place less trust in great writers. “The mandarin writer no longer has a place in today’s world,” he has observed. “Figures like Sartre in France or Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno in their time, or Octavio Paz, served as guides and teachers on all the important issues and filled a void that only the ‘great writer’ seemed capable of filling, whether because few others participated in public life, because democracy was nonexistent, or because literature had a mythical prestige.” But today, “in a free society, the influence that a writer exerts—sometimes profitably—over submissive societies is useless.”
The irony, of course, is that Vargas Llosa has had a higher public profile than almost any writer of his time. He has been famous ever since emerging in the 1960s as a leading figure of the movement called the Latin American Boom, and in 2010, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the same time, he has been a vocal participant in the politics of his native Peru, even mounting a serious campaign for president in 1990. Though he lost the second round of the election to the future dictator Alberto Fujimori, Vargas Llosa established himself as one of the world’s most eloquent spokesmen for democracy and free markets—a position that puts him directly at odds with most Latin American intellectuals of his generation, who are likelier to share the dogmatic leftism of his contemporary Gabriel García Márquez. Yet even as Vargas Llosa insists on the need for reason and freedom in politics, his fiction has continued to explore the imaginative realms of unreason and obsession, primitivism and violence.
These themes are on ample display in one of Vargas Llosa’s best books, The Storyteller (1987), in which he imagines his way out of modern Western civilization and into the mind of a nomadic Amazonian people, the Machiguenga. The novel’s narrator is a man who, in all outward respects, is Vargas Llosa himself—a Peruvian writer and expatriate who thinks back to his Latin American upbringing while living in Florence. As a university student, the narrator relates, he had a good friend, Saul Zuratas, who was doubly cut off from ordinary Peruvian society: he was a Jew, and he was born with a disfiguring birthmark. To compensate for this otherness, Saul embraced the even greater otherness of the Machiguenga, becoming obsessed with this small, struggling people’s nomadic way of life and bizarre cosmology. Saul ultimately managed the impossible: he became a member of the tribe, and what’s more, a storyteller, or hablador, responsible for preserving and sharing the Machiguengas’ history. Alternating chapters of the novel are told in a voice that we gradually realize is Saul’s, as he coaxes the reader into an utterly alien worldview.
The Machiguengas call themselves “people who walk,” and the first premise of their metaphysics is that they must be constantly on the move. If they stop, disaster will befall them; in fact, the universe itself will die. They are kept to this principle by their memories of the darkest period in their history, “the time of the tree-bleeding.” This was the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century, in which Peruvian speculators kidnapped large numbers of Indians and forced them to work on rubber plantations. Vargas Llosa imagines this period as a kind of Machiguenga holocaust, in which vast numbers of people died and the traditional culture was almost snuffed out. “Before, there were many men who walk; after, very few,” says the storyteller. “When things like that happen, they don’t disappear. . . . They linger on in one of the four worlds. . . . Those who see them come back heart-stricken, it seems, their teeth chattering with sickened disgust.”
In 1911, at the height of “the time of the tree-bleeding,” the world was awakened to the horrors going on in the Amazonian jungles of Peru by Sir Roger Casement, the greatest humanitarian investigator of his age. Casement, Irish Protestant by birth, was already world-famous, thanks to his scathing report on the abuses that King Leopold’s regime had committed in the Belgian Congo, where millions of people were killed and starved to death—again, in the pursuit of rubber. This made Casement a natural choice when the British government decided to investigate rumors of atrocities against Peru’s Putumayo Indians.
For many in Britain and around the world, Casement represented the best of Western civilization, just as King Leopold represented the worst. Indeed, Casement’s career brings into sharp focus the contradictions of European imperialism. On the one hand, it was the government of the British Empire that ordered Casement to explore the “heart of darkness” that was the Congo (indeed, Joseph Conrad was personally acquainted with and influenced by Casement). British public opinion, horrified by Casement’s revelations, drove an international movement that insisted on reforms in Africa and Peru. Yet it was the presence of Europeans in Africa, and of European capital in Peru, that unleashed those horrors in the first place. Which was the true face of Britain and the West: the exploiter or the humanitarian, Leopold or Casement?
To Casement himself, the answer finally became clear: Britain was a force for evil that one had to resist at any price. As an Irishman, he began to identify with the wretched of the earth, the victims of colonialism. Even as he became a British knight, he grew increasingly active in Irish nationalist and independence movements. At last, during World War I, he decided that the cause of Irish freedom even justified collaboration with Germany. He traveled to Germany to try to enlist Irish prisoners of war in an Irish legion to fight against Britain and also to procure German weapons for use in an Irish revolt. After being smuggled back to Ireland in a submarine in 1916, Casement was captured by the British and put on trial for treason.
But one more twist was in store for this already unlikely life. Eager to discredit a man with a worldwide reputation for probity, the British government circulated what it claimed to be Casement’s private diaries, full of graphic details of his homosexuality. The use of sex to discredit Irish leaders was an old tactic—a generation earlier, Charles Stewart Parnell had been exposed as an adulterer—and many people believed (as some still believe) that the “Black Diaries” purported to be Casement’s were frauds. Still, by the time Casement was hanged for treason in August 1916, his reputation was in ruins, and he became an untouchable figure in Irish politics for several generations.
There could hardly be a richer subject for a novelist than Casement, especially in the twenty-first century, when the attitudes of 100 years ago toward sex, race, and imperialism have changed so dramatically. Above all, Casement offers a perfect case study in the conflict between liberalism and radicalism. As a humanitarian and an anti-imperialist, Casement was a liberal hero, recalling Western civilization to its own highest ideals; as a revolutionary and nationalist, he was a radical, convinced that British ideals were a sham that had to be overthrown by violence. Which phase of Casement’s career ought we to admire, and which condemn? And if you had to name the novelist best equipped to explore just these problems, the answer would surely be Vargas Llosa. No one has written about the conflict between classical liberalism and radicalism, between freedom and utopianism, more fully than he has. He has lived that conflict himself, evolving from the conventional leftism of his Latin American generation into an exponent of political and economic freedom.
Now, in The Dream of the Celt—his first novel to appear in the United States since he won the Nobel Prize—Vargas Llosa has undertaken to write a novelized biography of Casement. Historical fiction is not a new field for Vargas Llosa; the book that many call his masterpiece, The War of the End of the World (1981), was a thoroughly researched retelling of the Canudos War, which wracked Brazil in the 1890s. He has also produced two previous novelizations of famous lives: The Feast of the Goat (2000) told the tale of the fall of Rafael Trujillo, the longtime dictator of the Dominican Republic, while The Way to Paradise (2003) braided the story of Paul Gauguin in Tahiti with that of Gauguin’s grandmother, a revolutionary activist.
The Dream of the Celt emphasizes the history more than the fiction. Now 76, Vargas Llosa doesn’t bring to Casement’s story the invention and imagination that he had in his prime. He sticks closely to the facts, following Casement on his itinerary from England to Africa to Peru and back to Europe. Often, the book reads like a biography, with the same flat forthrightness of statement: “Roger Casement initiated the period in his life when he would be most deeply immersed in the problems of Ireland by traveling to the Canary Islands in January 1913.”
At the start, Vargas Llosa tells us, Casement is a true believer in the civilizing mission of the Europeans in Africa. His first job is at a British shipping company, where he feels that he is participating in a sacred cause: “Commerce brought religion, morality, law, the values of a modern, educated, free, and democratic Europe, progress that would eventually transform tribal unfortunates into men and women of our time. In this enterprise, the British Empire was in the vanguard of Europe, and one had to feel proud of being part of it.”
Yearning to get still closer to “the vanguard of Europe,” Casement moves to the Congo, working as a British consul in a remote rubber-producing area. What he sees there—the forced labor, the violence and torture that virtually depopulated the territory—destroys his illusions about imperialism. Yet when Casement writes his famous report on the Congo in 1904, Vargas Llosa shows, he has not yet given up on Europe. Casement finds an ally in the journalist Edmund Morel, whose exposés helped bring attention to the Congo: “This is Europe too, Roger Casement often thought, not only the colonists, police, and criminals we send to Africa. Europe is also this clear, exemplary spirit: Edmund D. Morel.”
At the same time, Vargas Llosa also shows Casement’s beginning to identify the Irish with the Africans as victims of colonialism. “There in the Congo, living with injustice and violence, he had discovered the great lie of colonialism and begun to feel ‘Irish,’ that is, like the citizen of a country occupied and exploited by the Empire that had bled and weakened Ireland.”
This sense only grows when Casement reaches Peru. On his fact-finding tour, Casement is lied to and threatened by representatives of the rubber company that he is investigating. The dynamic of brutality in Putumayo becomes, in Vargas Llosa’s hands, a pre-echo of the “banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt saw in the Holocaust. Ordinary men, entrusted with absolute power and given an incentive to oppress the native Indians, become monsters of cruelty and violence. Once again, Casement finds himself radicalized by the experience: “We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited, and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in the laws, institutions, and governments of England to attain our freedom. They will never give it to us.”
This is Casement the revolutionary. Yet in another passage, when a Peruvian challenges Casement by saying, “I’d like to know what your idea of civilization is,” he responds with a statement of classical liberalism that sounds very much like Vargas Llosa’s own views. “It could be summed up by saying that it’s an idea of a society where private property and individual liberty are respected,” Casement says. “For example, British laws prohibit colonists from occupying indigenous lands in the colonies. And they also prohibit, under pain of imprisonment, employing force against natives who refuse to work in the mines or camps.” On this view, Britain is an empire of laws, which need only be enforced to ensure justice.
The great missed opportunity in The Dream of the Celt is Vargas Llosa’s failure to sharpen the contradiction between these two views of the British Empire. Was it true that the Irish of 1904 were as ill-treated as the Congolese? Was Britain—the empire that Casement had helped expose on two continents—so irredeemably evil that only violence could persuade it to let Ireland go? Would Ireland and the world have been better off if Germany had defeated England in World War I, as Casement hoped? By 1914, after all, Britain had voted for Home Rule for Ireland, though the measure was suspended for the duration of the war.
Our view of Casement must depend on our answers to these questions, but Vargas Llosa does not ask them forcefully enough. Instead, Casement’s patriotic ardor goes unchallenged, as when he rhapsodizes from his jail cell on the Easter Rising: “A thousand times better to die like them with a gun in his hand—a heroic, noble, romantic death—and not face the indignity of the gallows, like a murderer or rapist. . . . Though only for an exceedingly brief parenthesis of seven days, ‘the dream of the Celt’ became a reality: Ireland, emancipated from the British occupier, was an independent nation.” What’s missing is the irony and regret that make Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916” a more adequate response to the grandeur and waste of that revolt.
Yet for all the weakness of its execution, The Dream of the Celt is recognizably Vargas Llosa’s in its return to his favorite constellation of questions—questions that animate his strongest writing. What is the place of nations and nationalism in a just world order? Does the path to justice lie through reform or revolution? Is the West a benevolent presence in world history or a malign one? Over the last half-century, few writers have been more drawn to these issues.
What made Vargas Llosa such an unusual politician, he explained in his memoir A Fish in the Water (1993), was not just that a writer and longtime expatriate dared to run for president. It was the way he defied the leftist dogmas that had a stranglehold on Peru’s intellectuals. “There was practically no way in which an intellectual of a country such as Peru was able to work, to earn his living, to publish, in a manner of speaking to live as an intellectual, without adopting revolutionary gestures, rendering homage to the socialist ideology, and demonstrating in his public acts . . . that he belonged to the left,” Vargas Llosa wrote.
Vargas Llosa remained an intellectual—during his 1990 campaign, he kept sane by studying social philosopher Karl Popper early every morning and reading the poetry of Góngora at bedtime. But he had long since thrown off “the socialist ideology”—an evolution vividly demonstrated in his 2003 essay collection Making Waves, which doubles as an intellectual autobiography. In his twenties, Vargas Llosa was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban revolution, credulously promoting the Castro cult in his journalism: “All the differences of opinion that might exist within the revolution disappear when it comes to Fidel Castro. He is the most solid agglutinating force that the Cuban people possess, the factor that maintains cohesion and popular enthusiasm, the twin pillars of the revolution,” he wrote in 1962.
Six years later, however, Vargas Llosa made clear his alienation from the Left in a sharply worded rebuke to Castro, who had supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Still casting himself as a friend to socialism, Vargas Llosa wrote: “To many sincere friends of the Cuban revolution, the words of Fidel have seemed to us as incomprehensible and as unjust as the noise of the tanks entering Prague.” In the context of the time and place, this signified a permanent break with Cuba and Communism, as he explained in a 1991 essay on another writer-politician, Václav Havel. “When I got to know the USSR, when I had begun to take account of the truth that lay behind the mirages of Cuba—I did not have many illusions about socialism,” Vargas Llosa wrote. “But, like many others, I did not dare make my doubts and criticisms public. Thanks to the armed intervention of the Warsaw Pact countries, I found the courage to do so.” The result was that “I became the enemy of Latin American ‘progressives’ and I began to think and speak independently once again, a position that I have never since abandoned.”
This independence made Vargas Llosa’s 1990 presidential run historic. He ran on a platform equally inspired by Popper and Milton Friedman, promising to open Peru to free trade, remove the state from the market, and guarantee legal freedoms. As he explained in A Fish in the Water:
The recurrent theme of my . . . speeches had been that the way out of poverty does not lie in redistributing the little wealth that exists but in creating more. And in order to do that markets must be opened up, competition and individual initiative encouraged, private property not be fought against but extended to the greatest number, our economy and our psychology taken out of the grip of the state, and the handout mentality that expects everything from the state replaced by a modern outlook that entrusts the responsibility for economic life to civil society and the market.
Vargas Llosa was surprised and gratified to find that this message resonated widely in Peru, a country where populist demagogues and dictators had made the state the sole dispensary of wealth and power. Even the man who beat him in the 1990 election ran on a platform of liberalization. To Vargas Llosa’s dismay, however, Fujimori turned out to be one more Latin American dictator, launching an “auto-coup” against the government and judiciary and installing himself as sole ruler. This was a total betrayal of what Vargas Llosa meant by liberalism, which is not only an economic creed but a political and personal one.
A disciple of Isaiah Berlin, whom he called in a moving essay “a hero of our time,” Vargas Llosa is a strong defender of “negative liberty,” the individual’s freedom from all forms of coercion, to the point of libertarianism. As he shows in The Language of Passion, a collection of his political commentaries for the Spanish newspaper El País, he is in favor of abortion rights and euthanasia, suspicious of religion in politics, a believer in open borders and immigration, and a strong foe of all forms of nationalism. “My own political dream,” he writes, “is of a world in which borders are allowed to fall into terminal disrepair, passports are moth-eaten, and customs officers take their place alongside pharaohs and alchemists as curiosities of interest only to archaeologists and historians.”
Vargas Llosa’s suspicion of power and authority—a suspicion that goes hand in hand with fascination—unites his politics with his best fiction. His first novel, The Time of the Hero (1962), is a vivid depiction of the Leoncio Prado military academy in Peru, where he had been a student not long before. Life in the school, as Vargas Llosa tells it, is a Lord of the Flies nightmare of violence, bullying, and (literal) bestiality, fueled by constant, if clandestine, drinking and smoking. When a boy known contemptuously as “the Slave” is killed during a field exercise, his only friend, “the Poet,” tries to expose the sociopathic “Jaguar” as the murderer. But the Poet quickly learns that the adults in charge, right up to the top of the Peruvian military, are interested only in covering up the crime. Power, Vargas Llosa asserts as early as his first book, is inevitably corrupt, brutal, and self-interested.
Yet this kind of compromised authority is less terrifying to Vargas Llosa than the power that prides itself on its purity. This is the power held by religious and political prophets, which makes men ready to die and to kill in the name of truth and justice. We see the essential ambiguity of this kind of power in The War of the End of the World, in which Vargas Llosa recounts the incredible history of Antonio the Counselor, a Christian cult leader who led tens of thousands of followers to establish an armed religious community in Brazil. Writing about life in Canudos, the Counselor’s city, Vargas Llosa is struck by the genuine idealism and self-sacrifice of its denizens, many of whom are former bandits and outcasts. Yet he is also horrified by the mindless submission to authority that leads them to fight and die for their beliefs (which include hostility to the metric system). This is an apocalyptic story, and Vargas Llosa captures the modern mind’s combination of admiration and repulsion for such totalizing faith.
Vargas Llosa saw a similarly apocalyptic mind-set at work in the Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path), the violent terrorist movement that paralyzed much of Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. In Death in the Andes (1993), he draws a parallel between the pre-Columbian beliefs of Peru’s Indians, which included human sacrifice, and the Khmer Rouge–like fanaticism of the Senderistas. Several chapters in the novel relate the stories of well-meaning people—a pair of French tourists, an environmentalist, a half-witted animal herder—who cross paths with the Senderistas, believing that they couldn’t possibly be targets of the terrorists’ wrath. All are proved wrong, as the Senderistas, intent on a total purification of society, beat these interlopers to death with stones—a violence that harks back, in Vargas Llosa’s telling, to the ancient rituals.
In his response to this kind of utopian ferocity, Vargas Llosa is a liberal in the mold of Berlin and also of Albert Camus, whom he names as another influence. “Whether we like it or not,” he has written, “those of us who refuse to give up the stubborn search for absolutes, full realization, and earthly paradise will discover that the only real and widespread progress—economic, social, moral, and cultural—has always rewarded modesty, not ambition. The winners are those societies that set as their goal not perfection but steady if partial progress, the renouncing of utopias, and the ascension to what Camus called ‘the morality of limits,’ a delicate and beautiful way of understanding democratic mediocrity and pragmatism.”
Yet Vargas Llosa’s perpetual return to fanaticism and apocalyptic violence—of which the revolutionary passion of Roger Casement in The Dream of the Celt is a mild form—suggests that he remains fascinated by the evil that he deplores. Indeed, while he has eulogized Berlin and Camus, he has also written sympathetically about Georges Bataille, the French master-theorist of perversity and evil, and he believes that Bataille captures an important dimension of human and literary experience. “Nothing could be further from the pure, serene, harmonious, lucid and healthy view of man held by Isaiah Berlin than this sombre, confused, sickly and fiery conception of Bataille,” he writes. “And yet I suspect that life is probably something that embraces and mixes these two enemies into a single truth, in all their powerful incongruity.”
Literature, Vargas Llosa often suggests, is a way to live out harmlessly the fantasies of power, purity, and transgression that reason prevents us from enacting in real life. This is one of the themes of his Nobel lecture, published as “In Praise of Reading and Fiction.” Here, he gives thanks for “the life of lies we add, thanks to literature, to the one we have, so we can be protagonists in the great adventures, the great passions life will never give us.”
Yet if this suggests an image of literature as a Walter Mittyish compensation for boredom, a safety valve for the passions, that is far from Vargas Llosa’s whole meaning. The fantasies that literature provokes, he insists, are themselves criticisms of life. By showing us how much and how dangerously we desire, they indict reality for giving us so little satisfaction. This is how literature becomes political and why dictatorships always perceive the writer, correctly, as a threat:
They do this because they know the risk of allowing the imagination to wander free in books, know how fictions become seditious when the reader compares the freedom that makes them possible and is exercised in them with the obscurantism and fear lying in wait in the real world. Whether they want it or not, whether they know it or not, when they invent stories, the writers of tales propagate dissatisfaction, demonstrating that the world is badly made and the life of fantasy richer than the life of our daily routine. This fact, if it takes root in their sensibility and consciousness, makes citizens more difficult to manipulate, less willing to accept the lies of interrogators and jailers who would like to make them believe that behind bars they lead more secure and better lives.
In his perception of the doubleness of literature—the way it is drawn to both justice and injustice—and in his insistence that this doubleness ultimately serves the cause of human freedom, Vargas Llosa offers a powerful example of what Lionel Trilling called the liberal imagination. That imagination is what allows even a late and flawed work like The Dream of the Celt to be clearly the work of a great writer.