Review of Books

The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa

October / November 2012

Recently published books of Irish and Irish-American interest.


The Dream of the Celt
The idea of Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the star writers of the Latin American Boom and the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, writing about Roger Casement, one of the more controversial, and misunderstood figures of Irish history, is initially surprising. There’s something surreal about the vision of the Peruvian writer conducting research at the Kerry County Museum in Tralee; walking the beach at Banna Strand; visiting the family estate in Co. Antrim.

But it also makes sense. Throughout his historical novels, Vargas Llosa has consistently been drawn to complicated subjects, such as the Brazilian religious leader Antônio Conselheiro, Peruvian revolutionary Alejandro Mayta,  and the French painter Paul Gauguin. In Casement he has certainly found one. Born in Ireland in 1864, Casement was a British diplomat by trade. He became famous for his carefully researched human rights reports on the rubber trade and the exploitation of natives in the Congo and the Amazon, which shocked the world. As Vargas Llosa shows, Casement’s horror at the effects of colonialism led him to return to his Irish roots and take up the nationalistic cause with fervor, in spite of his failing health. After campaigning doggedly throughout Ireland and the U.S., at the start of WWI he became convinced that an Irish uprising would only succeed with support from the Germans. Right before the Easter Rising, to which he was opposed, Casement was caught trying to smuggle German arms from a submarine off the coast of Co. Kerry. He was hanged for treason at Pentonville Prison in August 1916.

Casement makes for such an interesting subject because of how little is known about him personally, and how much of even that hinges upon the British campaign against him following his arrest. After searching his residence, the British authorities had segments of his diaries, known as “The Black Diaries,” leaked in the newspapers, and their graphic accounts of liaisons with young men in the Congo and South America sparked public outrage and damaged Casement’s plea for clemency. Whether he actually wrote the passages has been debated for years, and no conclusive answer was reached when the British government declassified the diaries in 1959. Vargas Llosa’s interpretation – that while some of the encounters did take place, the majority of them were fantasies – is both highly literary and highly empathetic.

Throughout The Dream of the Celt, Vargas Llosa’s understanding of Casement as not just a figure but a person is abundantly clear. The novel is divided into three sections – The Congo, Amazonia, and Ireland – and interspersed with flashes of Casement’s time at Pentonville: his visits from friends, including Alice Stopford Green, and his talks with the prison chaplain, Fr. Carey, and a surprisingly kind guard. While the excursions into Casement’s past tend to get bogged down in facts and repetition, these passages are meditative and finely wrought, and the last moments leading up to his execution have to be among the most delicate and heartbreaking in recent literary history.

With this degree of sensitivity, Vargas Llosa has done Casement a greater credit than practically any Irish scholar or historian to date.

– Sheila Langan
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux / 368 pages / $29.00)

The Graves Are Walking
There are plenty of books about the famine. But with The Graves Are Walking, John Kelly has done more than simply re-examine the facts and submit a new take on the disaster; which in itself would have been quite a feat, considering the mounds of previous academic study devoted to subject. Kelly has constructed a narrative in which the circumstances surrounding the Great Hunger mirror the U.S.’s current socio-political climate.

The introduction, which takes us through Cork during the height of the famine, has a deliberately apocalyptic feel. Kelly recounts a brief interaction between an English colonel stationed in Dublin and a colleague in 1846. “There is an undefined notion that something terrible is about to take place. Men’s minds are in a very unsettled state.” The prophecies, the chaos, the eerie feeling that a storm, possibly a revolution, lingers in the not-too-distant future – sound familiar yet? Just wait.

This account speaks of mounting debts in the wake of the initial crisis, of a biased media, and of ideologues. Religious fanaticism and racial bigotry masquerade as political savvy. Kelly places much of the blame for the social disaster not on a crop fungus or a primitive infrastructure, but on what he claims was Britain’s purposeful attempt at social engineering.
The Graves Are Walking will undoubtedly be the subject of some controversy. But the fact that Kelly has made this effort to remind us that “history” is alive, repetitive and relevant, is something we should all be able to agree on as a worthwhile endeavor.

– Catherine Davis
(Henry Holt & Company / 397 pages / $32.00)


Radio Iris
Anne-Marie Kinney’s debut novel Radio Iris has garnered a curious smattering of praise. Phrases like “The Office as scripted by Kafka” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) and “An astute evocation of office weirdness and malaise” (The Wall Street Journal) aren’t exactly compliments so much as stunned observations.

Radio Iris is the story of a girl who has done nothing wrong: she is a loving, if somewhat distracted, daughter to her loving, if somewhat distant, parents; she has gone into debt to finish college and taken an executive assistant position to a high-powered businessman; she is deeply loyal and forgiving of her brother, Neil; she even cleans her apartment and returns stray dogs to their owners. Iris’s normality, her dutiful following of the path set out before her, rings of the promises made to a millennial generation, then broken when the country’s youth realized their student loan burdens and line-toeing adolescence might mean nothing more than years of rejection from potential employers.

Something in Iris shifts when she begins to experience holes in the fabric of her universe. The workers at her company disappear without warning and without reaction; her boss’s behavior and time away from the office become more erratic; she buys a black Sharpie and begins writing messages everywhere, as if communicating with the survivors of an impending apocalypse. “I will never be thirsty,” she inscribes on the wall behind the water cooler. A low-grade anxiety that builds from page one (“Iris feels goose bumps rising on her forearms, but hesitates to touch the thermostat”) is familiar to anyone who has sat under fluorescent lighting in an office, wondering what the point is. Kinney artfully and persistently raises the level of panic, building a surreality inhabited by Iris and a mysterious occupant of the office next door. When the water cooler ultimately disappears, along with most of the physical and metaphorical world that Iris depended on, we are not surprised.

The novel is grounded by the trappings of real life: a believable backstory for Neil’s near-sociopathic unhappiness, a friend from college who  tries to push Iris into a normal adulthood (her more pressing purpose, though, might be to clarify that Iris even exists). But Kinney, who is of Irish descent on her mother’s side, does not hold back from letting the walls fall away, leaving Iris in a landscape that is foreign to us, but seems to be what Iris has waited her whole life to see.

– Kara Rota                           
(Two Dollar Radio / 209 pages / $16.00)

Falling Glass
Adrian McKinty uses his native Carrickfergus as the backdrop for much of Falling Glass, his new crime drama about an Irish Traveller, or Pavee, introduced to us as Killian. An ex-enforcer for the IRA, Killian decided at 40 to turn his life around, enrolling in university and buying some real estate. But when the recession causes his only legitimate business venture to fail, Killian takes one final job as a gun-for-hire. Which, of course, leads to another job.

Falling Glass is fast-paced, violent, and sexy – in a removed, technical way. If you weren’t up on recent history and culture before reading this novel, you will be, halfway through. “Thirty years of low-level civil war had kept out the chains, but the peace dividend had brought them in with a vengeance,” McKinty writes. “Drugs, new houses and McDonalds – that was the post ceasefire Northern Ireland.” Killian gives the impression that he (like, McKinty seems to be implying, Northern Ireland as whole) is a bit of a latecomer, not only to higher education, but to the grip of Western corporate culture. Making him equally voracious for Dunkin’ Donuts as for architectural theory.

A running joke is that the main characters all have terrible luck with transportation. Foul-smelling rental cars, rude airline passengers, unnecessary boat rides – McKinty has clearly had his share of negative travel experiences. Falling Glass, however, moves along smoothly, without any abrupt shifts or changes in direction, and it’s over sooner than you’d like.

– Catherine Davis
(Serpent’s Tail / 320 pages / $14.95)


Traditional Notes: A Celebration of Irish Music and Musicians
An impressive pictorial guide to contemporary traditional Irish music, Traditional Notes features  some of the most important musicians to come out of Ireland in the last fifty years, including Martin Hayes, Noel Hill, Dennis Cahill and The Dubliners’ Barney McKenna, all the while celebrating classic trad instruments such as the fiddle, bodhran, accordion, banjo and many more.

A guide book on any topic can run the risk of being insipid, but this is something  award-winning photographer Stephen Power masterfully avoids. With informative and refreshing notes on both artists and instruments, Traditional Notes is easy and enjoyable to read. The photography is exceptional, and Power brings each two-dimensional picture to life with a  warm, natural, and vivid quality – without the overuse of high contrast, heavy lighting or flashy filtering.

Power stays true to the instrument and to the musician by capturing them – in the moment, in song, in creation – exactly as they are. You cannot hear the fiddle, the ‘thrum’ of the bodhran, nor the haunting Irish voice through the pages, but Power so brilliantly portrays them that you shouldn’t be surprised if you start to imagine those beloved Irish instruments and voices in your mind. This book is a definite must for any lover of Irish music.

– Michelle Meagher
(Liffey Press/DuFour Editions / 204 pages / $29.95)

Children’s Books

Sally Go Round the Stars
Beautifully compiled and illustrated, Sally Go Round the Stars by Sarah Webb and Claire Ranson is a collection of Ireland’s most treasured nursery rhymes and favorite international rhymes. This enchanting picture book is a time capsule that will make adults relive the days of their childhood with their own children or any young ones.  Webb and Ranson bring us classics like “Little Miss Muffet,” “Hey Diddle Diddle,” “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “Jack and Jill,” and then there are the Irish favorites like “Janey Mac” and “Are Ye Right There, Michael?” Every page features charming pictures in a quirky, folksy style that will engage readers, young and old.
This is a staple for any nursery bookshelf and is sure to be a choice bedtime read.  With its engaging rhymes and songs like “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” and “Three Blind Mice,” which are great for young readers and perfect for interactive story time, this book is also a must in young classrooms. Sally Go Round the Stars will help continue the tradition of storytelling  and nursery rhymes for generations to come.

– Michelle Meagher
(O’Brien Press/DuFour Editions / 64 pages / $23.95)

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