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- Casement ran afoul of the British Empire when he returned home and realized that Ireland was as subject to imperialism and colonialism as the natives he had observed in extremis. The Crown did not take kindly to this epiphany. He was eventually arrested for treason for trying to enlist Germany’s help in the Irish fight against British rule.
The first half of the novel owes a clear debt to Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness hums like a mosquito in the background. In fact, among other historical figures, we meet Conrad himself, behaving like a coward in these pages.
Sir Henry Stanley, the famous African explorer who found David Livingstone, is cruel. There’s not a hero among Casement’s cohort, not even poor Casement himself. He wanders, seemingly dazed, watching blood spatter from the “savages” and worrying about Ireland. It is a delicate performance by Vargas Llosa.
We first meet Casement in prison, awaiting execution. His entire adventure is told in unemotional flashback, but the story is oddly dammed because the narrative flow is as captive as its hero. By page 90, one realises this is not a tale of adventure; it is a tale of oppression. The author expects us to attend to the great themes and learn.
Colonialists in the era of King Leopold II are portrayed here as weirdly disconnected from the violence they inflict. Convinced that torture is for their victims’ own good, these capitalists ravage the land in pursuit of rubber for burgeoning new markets in the first world. The natives are enslaved — and then tortured or killed if they resist. Their masters avoid censure by calling this genocide “liberation.”