In Conversation • Mariana Bolfarine

Mariana Bolfarine holds a Ph.D. from the University of São Paulo (2015) and was a research fellow at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (2013-2014). She teaches at the Federal University of Rondonópolis (UFR), is a researcher at the WB Yeats Chair of Irish Studies and head of the Brazilian Association of Irish Studies. Dr Bolfarine is a member of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL) and is a representative of Brazil for the Irish University Review bibliography. She has published widely on Roger Casement and has translated into Portuguese: Roger Casement in Brazil: Rubber, the Amazon and the Atlantic World 1884-1916 (2010) and the Amazon Journal of Roger Casement (2016). Dr. Bolfarine is also the author of Between “Angels and Demons”: Trauma in Fictional Representations of Roger Casement (2018).

Mariana, when started your connection with Ireland, and how is/was it?

My connection with Ireland began at the University of São Paulo (USP), in 2009, whilst working on my MA thesis. I was initially interested in literary relations between Ireland and the Caribbean. Dr. Laura Izarra, who was my supervisor, gave me the opportunity to translate, into Portuguese, Roger Casement in Brazil: Rubber, the Amazon and the Atlantic World 1884-1916 (2010) by historian Angus Mitchell, which was originally a catalogue for an exhibition that was shown during one of the first conferences on Roger Casement held in Manaus in 2009. Back then, I knew almost nothing about Roger Casement and once I was sent the document and started translating it, I was struck by the material. I consider this experience a watershed, not only in my career but also as a person. A whole new world opened up to me in terms of the historical, anthropological, and humanist relevance of the material Casement had left us. I believe this little book, Roger Casement in BraziI, is, in fact, a great book, for it offers an introduction to the life of Roger Casement, first taking into consideration the twenty years he spent in the Congo, then his investigation in Amazonia and finally, his transformation into an Irish Revolutionary. Yet, as implied by the title, it emphasizes the time Casement spent in Brazil, as a British Consul in Santos, Belem do Para, and as Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro, as well as the Putumayo mission, by way of carefully selected excerpts by Mitchell. In 2010, Angus Mitchell came to Brazil for the V Symposium of Irish Studies in South America and Laura Izarra suggested translating Casement’s Amazon Journal, published by Mitchell in 1997. That is when I decided, together with Laura, that I would continue to research Roger Casement for my Ph.D.

You organised and translated into Portuguese the very first edition of “The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement”, edited by Angus Mitchell. Who was Roger Casement and why did you become interested in his works?

Roger David Casement was born in Sandycove, Dublin, 1864. He was a British consul and, later, an Irish revolutionary. The turning point in his life took place after his parents’ death when, at the age of 16, he left Northern Ireland for Liverpool. There, his uncle Edward Bannister placed him at the Elder Dempster Shipping Line, his passport to Africa. He soon became an official in the Congo Free State, ruled by the Belgian monarch Leopoldo II. Having been noticed by officials of the Crown, Casement was later appointed British consul in Portuguese Africa at Lourenço Marques. His following post was in Brazil (1906-1913). In his lifetime, Casement was acclaimed for the authorship of two documents published as Blue Books: the Congo Report written in 1903; and the Putumayo Report, in 1911. Both contain graphic descriptions of atrocities committed against the natives of these regions during the rubber boom in the early 20th century. For these investigations, Casement was appointed CMG (Companion of St. Michael and St. George) and, later, Knight. Casement eventually turned against the British Empire and joined the cause of the independence of Ireland. He sought German support against England during the First World War and on 21 April 1916, he was arrested after returning to Ireland in a U19 submarine to participate in the Easter Rising. Amidst Casement’s trial for high treason in England, the Black Diaries, of homosexual content, were found by the Home Office in his London lodgings, undermining a plea for clemency by intellectuals such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. His supporters believed that because of his humanitarian achievements in the Congo and Putumayo he deserved a reprieve, which was denied. Casement was hanged on 3 August 1916.

I believe the second part of the answer to this question has been tackled above, but yes, it is, in fact, a great honor to have taken part in this project and to have contributed with providing Brazil with an extremely important piece of work that brings to light one of the most violent chapters of transatlantic history concerning the rubber cycle that would have, otherwise, been forgotten. It usually takes some time, even years, for the impact of academic work to be properly measured, and in the case of the Amazon Journal, it is possible to see how important it is by means of citations and referencing it in academic articles and books. There is also a documentary whose script was based on the Portuguese translation of the Amazon Journal – Segredos do Putumayo, Secrets of the Putumayo, by Amazonian filmmaker Aurélio Michilles – to be launched in 2020, which evinces the importance of research that is undertaken in Brazilian public universities, and how one piece of research continues to bear fruit.

You took 6 years to translate his journal, it was an intense and long journey for you. Was the most difficult part translating Irish expressions?

Yes, it took a while. You see, at university level, especially in Brazilian public universities, these processes take time. The translation was carried out by three translators: Dr Mail Azevedo Marques, Dr. Maria Rita Drumond Viana and myself, which was terrific because we shared the work. Afterwards, I, as coordinator of the translation, together with Laura Izarra, reread and revised the document several times in order to standardize the different styles and word choices made by the three translators. This took a considerable amount of time, especially because all of us had other occupations. I was, at the time, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of São Paulo supported by FAPESP, so apart from the translation, I had my research project to work on, conferences to attend, and so on. Moreover, publishing a book via EDUSP, the USP publishing house, is highly competitive. The material was first submitted for analysis by a board of specialists, and after its approval, the material was, once more, carefully revised, the pictures were selected, as well as the cover.

How about the stories themselves, were you able to work on the translation with a different outlook, like, not letting the emotions touch your work or are your feelings about Casement’s feelings part of your translation as well?

I believe translating travel writing enables one to participate in the journey made by the traveler, and the vehicle is the words on the page. Furthermore, the translator of travel accounts acts as a bridge between (at least) three different cultures; that of the traveler, that of the destination, and that of the translator. One must enter the mind of the writer in order to make sense of his/her thoughts, feelings and perspectives. Because the atrocities Casement described were committed against the Amazonian natives, as a Brazilian, I felt closer to them. On a larger level, I could relate to these peoples as human beings exploited by an “other”, the owners and employees of the Peruvian Amazon Company who considered the indigenous peoples as less human than themselves. I find particularly striking Casement’s detailed descriptions of instruments of torture, such as the cepo – wooden stocks in which the Indians agonized, the floggings with whips made of tapir hide, the heavy weight of the tulas – loads of rubber carried by the Indians, the starvation, the treatment of women as sexual slaves, the system of debt bondage, and so on. It certainly required a sensitive eye in order to look beyond the scarred bodies of the Indians to see them as human beings and be brave enough to register and publish such an account. There were also the Barbadians, British subjects who acted as overseers of the indigenous rubber collectors and were both perpetrators and victims. They provided Casement with testimonies that have become evidence of the crimes. Both reports, the one about Congo and the one about Amazonia, contain pictures, some by taken missionaries and other travelers, and many by Casement himself, followed by descriptions, which makes the experience of reading the Journal even more vivid, albeit difficult to “switch off” from the translation, as these images and descriptions would stay with me for days.

Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, went to Brazil for the launch of the book and he wrote the foreword of it. Was Casement a link between Ireland and Brazil? How is the acceptance of him and Irish people through Casement’s works and life?

Roger Casement is certainly a particularly important link between Ireland and Brazil. I believe President Michael Higgins is a generous man, and very accessible. He was not in Brazil for the launch but was here for an important academic event that had taken place sometime earlier. Yet, he was extremely important to bridge Brazilian and Irish experiences of Roger Casement. Not only this but by way of Casement’s struggle for the cause of the Putumayo Indians, the President brings to the fore an important aspect of Irish culture and society: the history of its involvement with Human Rights issues and with humanitarian causes, which can be seen even today, in 2020 at the brink of the coronavirus pandemic. Higgins was not only pleased to collaborate with us, but he was also responsible for bringing his memory to the fore during the commemorations of the centenary of his death which took place in 2016, which was unprecedented. Yet, I still think Casement’s importance besides the Howth gun running and the part he played in the 1916 Easter Rising is not much understood, neither in Ireland, Brazil nor Britain. There is also the still ongoing dispute concerning the Black Diaries, which ends up overshadowing his humanitarian deeds, so there is still much work to be done in this respect.

What is the significance of Casement’s work and history for Brazil’s literature?

In terms of Brazilian literature, the life of Roger Casement has not been much explored, except for the play As Duas Mortes de Roger Casement / The Two Deaths of Roger Casement (2016), produced by the theatre company Cia Ludens and directed by Domingos Nunes and the film Segredos do Putumayo/Secrets of the Putumayo, by Amazonian filmmaker Aurélio Michilles, to be launched this year.

Is studying Roger Casement like opening a window to another world and different times or the ‘Ghost of Casement’ is still alive in Amazon?

Certainly. In my dissertation, I quote Rebecca Solnit who compares Casement to a window. In fact, the word casement refers to a kind of window, but the “Casement” window is one through which we are able to see things that had, up to then, been hidden from the public eye. In a letter to Cunningham Graham (1903), Conrad has said: “He [Casement] could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know”. Casement brings to light the cruel mode of operation that lay behind the tyres of a Ford Model T. It was Indians’ blood that made modernity possible, but, yet, nobody knew, and even today, few people know. In my opinion, the best way for one to look through the “Casement” and “see” things, is by reading his journals and reports. The intimate, and naturalistic way that he writes, makes us feel as if we are his travel companions along with the Putumayo, once described by Walt Hardenburg as “the devil’s paradise”.
As to the second part of the question, the idea of Casement as a ghost that continuously haunts Anglo-Irish relations comes from W.B. Yeats, when he wrote: “The Ghost of Roger Casement is knocking at the door”. I believe this is true today, but not in terms of the relations between Ireland and Britain, but as a message to the whole world, a warning that if we continue to destroy the natural environment and exploit others, there will be severe consequences to human kind.

“O WHAT has made that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
It never crossed the sea because
John Bull and the sea are friends;
But this is not the old sea
Nor this the old seashore.
What gave that roar of mockery,
That roar in the sea’s roar?
The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.”

– W.B.Yeats

Read here.


You also wrote about Roger Casement in your doctoral dissertation “Between Angels and Demons”: trauma in fictional representations of Roger Casement, have you had any trauma learning about his life?

My Ph.D. dissertation, Between “Angels and Demons”: Trauma and Fictional Representations of Roger Casement, published by Humanitas/FAPESP in 2018, presents a general discussion on works of literature that deal with this controversial figure under the perspective of trauma theory. I focus on four novels: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys (2001), The Dream of the Celt (2010), by Mario Vargas Llosa, The Fox’s Walk, by Annabel Davis-Goff (2001), and two radio plays: The Dreaming of Roger Casement (2012), by Patrick Mason and Cries from Casement as his Bones are Brought to Dublin (1974), by David Rudkin.
I wouldn’t say I was “traumatized” by researching Casement and the atrocities, but I would say, I was deeply impacted, and at the same time, I feel privileged to have undertaken this journey which, fortunately, is not over yet, as I am currently translating Séamas Ó Síocháin’s The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement’s Congo report and 1903 Diary.

Writers like Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jamie O’Neil, Patrick Mason, W.B.Yeats, and even James Joyce mentioned and wrote about Casement. Based on your studies, what do you think was the relationship between them, if there were a common ground and reasons to keep Casement’s life and works alive?

I suppose what these works have in common is that they all present different accounts of the same man, under diverse historical perspectives. This can be seen for instance in the heroic portrayal of Casement as Lord Roxton by Conan Doyle, or Casement with fears and doubts as any human being in Vargas Llosa’s novel, or even as an allegory of the troubles in Northern Ireland in Rudkin’s play, Cries from Casement as his Bones are Brought to Dublin, one of my favorites. There is also another important novel that deals with Roger Casement in the Putumayo called La Vorágine, translated as The Vortex, by Colombian Writer José Eustasio Rivera (1924), as well as works about Casement in the Congo, such as King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905), by Mark Twain, and the most well-known Heart of Darkness (1902), by Joseph Conrad. Of course, we must not forget to mention the W.B Yeats’s poems “Roger Casement” and “The Ghost of Roger Casement”, both published in 1936.

I think literature, especially literature that deals with some kind of trauma as is the case with Casement, is written so that these happenings will not fall into oblivion. Like monuments, literature keeps the memory alive.

Before Casement wrote in his journals about slavery in times of the rubber in Amazon, the Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha had written about the same issue. It seems that one of the duties of literature is to point out situations to the world. When the role of the literature finish, what happens next?

Yes, in fact, what Euclides da Cunha describes in At the Margins of History is an Amazon forest that is no longer an idyllic, untouched, and virginal space, but as a green hell, a place of death and destruction. He defines the kind of labor relations that took place during the rubber boom in the early twentieth century as “escravidão por dívida”, debt bondage, a system in which the worker is enslaved by debt. He owes his employer the food he buys from the local shop, which is overpriced, the same with clothes, with rent, with cigarettes… And, unfortunately, this is something that happens even nowadays. I do not think literature will ever die. It may take on different formats, different guises, but human beings will have the need to express themselves; it is a way to say what was left unsaid.

About yourself, how was the experience of studying in Ireland?

I had been to Ireland, and to Northern Ireland before, to attend conferences, and to undertake research in libraries. However, to have the experience of living in the country about which you study is extremely important. As part of my Ph.D., I applied to FAPESP for one year abroad. I decided to go to the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, where I was supervised by Dr. Luke Gibbons. In Maynooth, I met the anthropologist Dr Séamas Ósíocháin, who helped me considerably, and in Limerick there was Dr. Angus Mitchell. I had the pleasure of attending a conference in Tralee, where the U19 submarine landed with Casement aboard and where he spent his last days in 1916. Also, I had access to the National Library of Ireland, where I consulted important documents, including the poem “The Dream of the Celt”, written by Casement, which I have transcribes in my book. Living in Ireland was essential because it was an opportunity of learning more about the Irish people and culture; especially in my case, for my son, who was eight at the time, attended the Boy’s National School in Maynooth and, by the end of the year, he had learned not only English but also Gaelic.

You are also part of the ABEI Journal and Irish University Review. What more projects do you work on related to Irish literature and other connections?

The Brazilian Association of Irish Studies was founded by a small group of people who had in common the love for Irish literature and culture. Among its founders are Dr. Munira H. Mutran, the late Maria Helena Koschitz, Dr. Laura Izarra, coordinator of the W.B. Yeats Chair of Irish Studies, and Dr. Rosalie Rahal Haddad, a supporter of the ABEI/Haddad Fellowship. I am currently president of ABEI, which is a great challenge, and chief-editor of the ABEI Journal, which publishes academic articles, book reviews, poems, short fiction, and interviews by Brazilians as well as academics from Ireland and many other countries on Irish Studies. The year of 2019 marked the thirtieth anniversary of ABEI, which was commemorated by way of the XIV Symposium of Irish Studies in South America as well as of a commemorative issue of the ABEI Journal, that is coming out this year.
I have also been a member of the IASIL (International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures) for many years and had the pleasure to attend many conferences organized by them. The Irish University Review is a renowned Irish Studies journal that publishes the “IASIL Bibliography”, an annual compilation of works on Irish Studies from around the World, and I am currently the representative of Brazil.

What Brazilian literature has to learn with Irish literature? What Irish literature has to learn with Brazilian literature?

Irish literature is relatively well known in Brazil, mainly via James Joyce. This can be seen by way of annual Bloomsday celebrations that started off with Dr. Munira Mutran and the Brazilian concretist poet Haroldo de Campos and which have gained popularity throughout the years. There are studies that relate Joyce’s work with that of João Guimarães Rosa, mainly in terms of style. Brazilian literature is extraordinarily rich, but unfortunately it is not popular in an international level. One of the reasons is the language barrier and the small amount of works translated from Portuguese into English, which results in writers such as Machado de Assis, Euclides da Cunha, Clarisse Lispector, among others, remaining in the sidelines. In Brazil, however, many come into contact with Irish literature in the university environment through extension courses. Since 1989, when ABEI was founded, and since 2009 when the WB Yeats Chair of Irish Studies was created at the University of São Paulo, there has been plenty of literary and cultural exchange via the mobility of scholars, researchers and postgraduate students between the two countries. Both ABEI and Chair organize a yearly Symposium of Irish Studies in South America, for which speakers from Europe, South and North America, and others, are invited to give plenary talks and teach short courses as visiting fellows on history, fiction, poetry, drama, film studies and the like. Numerous renowned Irish fiction writers have come to USP, such as John Banville, Cólm Tóbín, Mary O’Donnell, Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, to name a few. We have had the case of poets like Paul Durcan and Moya Canon who have been influenced by their travels and have written about their experience in Brazil.

If you could send Casement a letter, what would you write to him?

This is an interesting question, in that I have been researching Casement for ten years, and, in a way, I feel as if I know him. I sometimes find myself wondering what would Casement think if he were alive today, amidst a coronavirus epidemic, which is putting in check the whole idea of connection and globalization, which was already in full swing in casement’s time. He definitely would not be happy.
But if I were to write Casement a letter, firstly, I would thank him for his writings, for the legacy he has left behind, for being a window which allows to see what he saw: atrocities, exploitation, the subjugation of human beings by human beings.
Secondly, I would also thank Casement for giving us his example. He gave a sick Andoque woman water to drink from his own bottle, he helped her walk and covered her with his clothes. He tended to wounds of men, women, and children. He put his own life and career at risk for fighting for the cause of the Congo, of the Putumayo and of Ireland.
Finally, I would let him know that he foresaw the drastic consequences of monoculture, of the natural exploitation of one natural element, as was the case with rubber in the twentieth century.
In Brazil today, the “black gold”, or rubber, has turned into “green gold”, or soy, along with cattle, which has resulted in the deforestation of the Amazon forest in unprecedented rates, as well as the death other ecosystems, such as the “cerrado” in the mid-west.
Yet, I would tell him that in spite of all the chaos that we are in, in the early twenty-first century, Casement’s journey still gives us hope, the hope of human rights, the hope of making transatlantic connections, and the hope that people will be able to see that every life matters.

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