~ Posted by Simon Willis, June 7th 2012
If there was ever an historical character to whet the novelist's appetite, Roger Casement is he. Firstly, there's the arc of his life—from pro-imperialist to anti-imperialist, from British-government lackey to Irish Nationalist, from the civil service to the gallows at Pentonville prison, executed for treason in 1916. Then there's the geographical range, which takes in the Congo, the Amazon and Ireland. Surely this stuff writes itself. But when you're writing a novel about a real-life character, and have to follow the path of the biography, where does research end and invention begin?
It was a question put to the Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, at the British Academy last night, where he was interviewed about "The Dream of the Celt", his new novel about Casement. In researching the book, he travelled widely, including to the Congo, and read a lot too, studying, amongst other things, Casement's infamous "Black Diaries", which detail what Vargas Llosa called the "vulgar" excesses of his homosexual life and were used by the British government, and perhaps even invented by them, to darken Casement's name. But he said the aim of this research wasn't slavish attachment to historical accuracy. The point is to enable him to "invent things that could be possible", which includes characters and conversations.
There's another new novel which takes the opposite view of historical accuracy. "HHhH", by the French writer Laurent Binet, is about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS intelligence service, and an architect of the Final Solution. But it's also an argument about the novelist's duty to the facts. “Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence,” Binet writes. And so he intersperses the more traditionally novelistic sections of his book with disclaimers—that he can't be sure about the colour of a car, for instance, or about where Heydrich was born, and certainly shouldn't invent anything to fill the gaps. To which this reader responded, well, why don't you find out? And if you're so worried about writing novels in the first place, why not write history or biography, which deal with facts and the historical record with a straighter face?
In Vargas Llosa's novel, it's the sections which he says were completely invented which are certainly the most successful. Last night he explained that Casement's life in prison was almost entirely undocumented, and it's that part of the story that feels most vivid in the book. In the Congo and the Amazon, the writing feels larded with research despite the biographical colour. Those parts of the biography don't feel like they've been reminted by Vargas Llosa's imagination.