Before Night Falls: A Memoir

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9780140157659: Before Night Falls: A Memoir

The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas "is a book above all about being free," said The New York Review of Books--sexually, politically, artistically. Arenas recounts a stunning odyssey from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his supression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In what The Miami Herald calls his "deathbed ode to eroticism," Arenas breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime. Recorded in simple, straightforward prose, this is the true story of the Kafkaesque life and world re-created in the author's acclaimed novels.

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About the Author:

Reinaldo Arenas was born in Cuba in 1943. In 1980, he was one of 120,000 Cubans who arrived in the United States on the Mariel boatlift. Arenas settled in New York where he lived until his death from AIDS ten years later.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

In May of 1980, the Cuban dissident poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990) arrived in Key West, Florida, after a harrowing five-day sea voyage on a pleasure craft named the San Lázaro. Having thus completed his own Mariel “exodus” that should have taken no more than seven hours, he expected to be welcomed by the American intellectual community that had hailed his works, published abroad while he was still in Cuba. He did not realize how parsimoniously the title of dissident was meted out to foreign authors (who ever heard of a dissident American author?) by the U.S. intellectual community and its publishers. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, “dissident” was a term customarily restricted to certain, and only certain, Soviet and Eastern European authors, the qualifications for which have never been revealed by Washington insiders or the then budding media conglomerates. Latin American authors were not dissidents but “exiles.” Cuban exiles, Haitian exiles, Dominican exiles, Chilean exiles, Argentine exiles. Manuel Puig (Argentina) was not a dissident writer; Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia) was. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn (USSR); but not Manlio Argueta (El Salvador). And especially not Cubans, writers or otherwise—

Gusanos (worms), escoria (dregs), agentes del CIA (CIA agents), perhaps. Reinaldo did not know that in America he would become, not a celebrity, but an invisible man; that he would vanish, disappear.

There is an old saying of the Cold War, first told me by Carlos Franqui, one of the early revolutionaries who joined Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra, to organize and direct Radio Rebelde: “In Communism and in Capitalism, they kick you in the ass,” he said. “But the difference is, under Communism, you have to smile and say, Thank you; whereas under Capitalism, at least you can scream.” Well, Reinaldo Arenas had come to scream…

In time, of course, Arenas would learn that when you scream without a microphone, nobody hears you, except maybe the next-door neighbor, who calls the landlord who calls the police, to have you evicted from your 43rd Street, rat-infested, New York City apartment. In the meantime, professors at famous American universities began expunging his novels from their syllabuses. Newspapers would select reviewers who had just come back from their latest two-week junket in Havana, all expenses paid by the Revolution, to learn how Utopia thrived in “the first free territory of the Americas.” While Reinaldo was living in a police-patrolled, rent-controlled Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the neighboring New York Times published a Sunday magazine cover story on “Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin American.” The theme of the piece was, of course, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, its pros and cons in the minds of the Latin American intelligentsia. Incorporating extended interviews with, among other authors, García Márquez of Colombia (pro-Fidel), Octavio Paz of Mexico (anti-Fidel), and Julio Cortázar of Argentina (frequent-flier on Cubana de Aviación, though his books never accompanied him), the most telling aspect of the entire piece was what was untold, naturally. Not a single Cuban intellectual, either inside or outside of Cuba, had been asked his opinion on the subject. Reinaldo wrote a letter of protest to the editor, which was never published. He did not exist.

In Germany, one of Arenas’s publishers sponsored a Latin American festival, to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1985, to which neither he, nor the Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (also in exile, and under contract to the same publisher) were invited. One of the editors of the publishing house was, yes, traveling back and forth to Cuba, learning about the Revolution. It seems that UNEAC (the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) had insisted it would only send its authors if no were invited. None were, but the promised shipment of genuine intellectual puros never showed up either. As Cabrera Infante would say, Holy Smoke!

Curiously, even the published versions of Reinaldo’s—

and Guillermo’s—

works became extremely difficult to find. Their Spanish publisher “couldn’t give them away.” Still, when bookstores ordered copies, they consistently received notices that the publisher was “temporarily out of stock.” Arenas had also been told by his French publisher, shortly after his escape from Cuba, that his translator (the most famous in all of France) was just too busy to translate his remaining works; a few years later Reinaldo received a disheartened letter from that same translator asking why, after so many years of faithful service, the author had no longer wanted him as his translator. Reinaldo screamed. Nobody heard…

How different it had been in Cuba. In 1965, a then twenty-two-year-old Reinaldo Arenas had won second prize for the manuscript of his first novel, Celestino Before Dawn, in an annual competition for best fiction sponsored by UNEAC in Havana. With a truly incantatory blend of the prosaic and the lyrical, a young boy “sings” the tale of his own awakenings, sexual and poetic, to the world about him through the irreverent promptings of his (imagined?) cousin Celestino. The novel would be published in 1967, selling out within a week, but would never be reissued inside of Cuba again. (It was eventually rewritten in exile as Singing from the Well. The first version is rumored to have been recently republished in Havana.)

In 1966, heralded as a young prodigy of the Revolution and acknowledged by such luminaries as the Cuban literary “giant,” José Lezama Lima, for the baroque pyrotechnics of his style, his wit and (more discreetly) his libido, Arenas improvidently entered the manuscript of a second novel in the next annual competition. Improvidently, because with Hallucinations he quite daringly recast the life of the historical Fray Servando into fiction, updating this Mexican pícaro’s exploits with salacious detail and political innuendo.

On December 12, 1794, the iconoclastical friar, Servando Teresa de Mier (1763–1827), renowned for the brilliance of his oratory, his wit, and his intellect, had delivered a heretical sermon at the Cathedral of Mexico City. The heresy was in suggesting, however obliquely, that the aboriginal Americans might have already been blessed with a good Christian “education” prior to the Spanish Conquest—

by the Apostle Thomas, whom Servando believed to be revered by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent). Immediately, the incorrigible Servando was banished to Spain, tried, and imprisoned. The balance of his life was spent in jail or in flight, harassed by the Holy Inquisition, hounded by the Spanish authorities, escaping dungeons, wandering in exile. The infamous sermon had wreaked havoc on the course of his life, though fortunately it would provoke his final revenge: the writing of his fantastic memoirs.

His, too, had been an age of revolutions (1776, in America; 1789, in France) and conflicting fanatical fervors, throughout Europe and Latin America. The powers of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire had been foundering on both continents. There were many Inquisitions, not all of them religious. Eighteenth-Century Rationalism, in its quest for ideological Purities (whether atheistic or clerical, republican or monarchical), seemed bent upon cleansing the Body Politic of the Past, or of the Future.

Arenas’s astonishing fictionalization of Servando’s life in his Hallucinations did win him another “second” prize—

but, this time, as something of an anomaly: there would be no first prize. Two jurors (one of them, the Cuban poet Vergilio Piñera) had voted in favor of his novel; two jurors (one of them, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier) had voted against it. The irony was that, despite his strong objections to the Arenas manuscript, Carpentier could find no substitute worthy of the prize. Yet, so great was the venerable novelist’s prestige (Had not Fidel appointed him cultural attaché to an embassy in Paris?), or perhaps his spite (Was he not the inventor of “marvelous reality” in fiction?), that with a simple wave of his magical-realist baton he liquidated the category: Hallucinations was awarded “first honorable mention.”

Never published in Cuba, it had to be smuggled abroad. Translations of the novel soon appeared, to critical acclaim, in half a dozen languages. In France, it was nominated for another prize—

the Prix Médicis, for best foreign novel of the year (1969). Here was a brilliantly inventive, comic novel written by a Latin American Gorky, a Cuban peasant raised from the stark brutality of his impoverished childhood in rural Oriente Province, from an island once ruled by a capitalist dictator he had helped to overthrow, joining the rebels in the Sierra Maestra as a young teenager, a rural foundling whom now the Cuban revolution had generously lifted out of ignorance and, behold: turned into a writer!

Meanwhile, at home curious things began to happen to Reinaldo Arenas, the writer, who could no longer publish in Cuba. Like Fray Servando before him, he found himself caught in an age of wars and revolutions, militant fervors and fanatical conflicts of ever spiraling dimensions. For here was another man of letters from another splendid Age—

that of Twentieth-century Progress—

who had too late realized that the old Colonial Spanish interdiction against fiction (and Eros) in the New World, had yet to be lifted in his utopian Caribe paradise. “You and I are the same person,” he had prophetically warned Fray Servando, in a prefatory letter to Hallucinations

or warned himself.

In 1970, Arenas was sent by UNEAC as a military recruit to a rural sugar mill, where he was expected to make his contribution to Fidel Castro’s improbable goal of a ten-million-ton harvest by cutting cane and writing a book in praise of the experience. Instead, he composed the furiously inspired rebuttal to that inhuman experiment: El Central (A Cuban Sugar Mill), which was also smuggled out of the country. It was during this period that the idea of a pentagonía began also to mature in the author’s mind: five novels or “agonies,” each depicting the life of a poet, who would live, write, suffer, and die, only to be reborn in the following novel. Together they would comprise “the secret history of Cuba.” Arenas had nothing but contempt for “visible” history, as blind as “a file of more or less chronologically ordered manila folders.”

The first volume (Singing from the Well), the poet as inspired wild-child, had already been written and published as Celestino. The second volume, The Palace of the White Skunks, smuggled out in 1972, recounts the adolescent dreams of a sexually ambivalent Fortunato, raised in a house of frustrated aunts, a tyrannical mother, and two ferociously primal grandparents. When the family abandons the farm and moves to Holguín, where his furiously taciturn grandfather hopes to open a grocery to put some food on the table, Fortunato decides to join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, only to be captured while clumsily attempting to wrest a rifle from a Batista recruit, after which he is tortured and executed by government soldiers on the eve of the Revolution’s (January, 1959) triumph. Here, Arenas has created a haunting family portrait, combining the lyrical empathy of a Tennessee Williams toward his characters’ troubled lives with a radically fractured narrative that pays dark tribute, less to Faulkner than to the schizophrenia of life under any dictatorial extreme.

The third volume, Farewell to the Sea, is arguably Reinaldo’s finest novelistic achievement within the Pentagonía. It had to be written three times, the first in 1969, when it was destroyed by a friend who was supposed to be hiding it away, chapter by chapter, as Reinaldo wrote it. A second version was confiscated by the authorities in 1972; and the present version, smuggled out in 1974, while Reinaldo was in prison. It was published in a (purposefully?) mangled and truncated version in Spain, in 1982, which quickly went out of print. There eventually followed an incompetently translated and dreadfully edited version in France, in 1987, which languished for years in a prohibitively expensive edition. That same year saw an English edition of the work come out here in the States, in Andrew Hurley’s magisterial translation. Until quite recently, this was the only readable—

or available—

version of the work in any language.

The final draft of the novel inevitably reflected Arenas’s growing desperation, as a writer and as a homosexual. He had been arrested in the summer of 1973, on trumped up charges of “seducing minors.” The experience is related factually in his memoirs Before Night Falls, and comically fictionalized in The Color of Summer, the fourth volume of the Pentagonía. Suffice it to note that the two masculine minors, who had actually stolen Arenas’s underwater gear at the beach, turned out to be well-above age and recanted their testimony at the trial. A contemptuous judge still managed to find him guilty of counterrevolutionary activities, in part through Arenas’s UNEAC file (signed by, among other cultural commisars, the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén) which confirmed that he had smuggled unauthorized manuscripts out of the country. After a bizarre escape (rivaling even Fray Servando’s bravado) from the local prison near the beach, he was finally recaptured and sent to various prisons and forced-labor camps (for “re-educating” homosexuals), including the notorious El Morro prison, where his semi-fictional mentor had been imprisoned two centuries earlier.

Farewell to the Sea is set, like the previous novel, on the eve of an anticipated triumph that will produce unmitigated disaster: Fidel’s trumpeted goal, for 1970, of the ten-million ton harvest. The novel is completely divided, one might say severed, into two parts: the second part composed of six furious cantos, sung in silence to the ocean by Hector, a poet who no longer writes, or is no longer allowed to, away on a six-day vacation at the beach. He has endured the forced-labor of the cane fields as a “volunteer.” He has entered a sham-marriage (though the union is not devoid of genuine, sometimes heartbreaking affection), and even fathered a child, in order to avoid the charge of homosexuality. At the beach he has an affair with a young boy who on the sixth day mysteriously drowns. The first part of the novel is told in prose by Hector’s wife, who genuinely loves him but does not seem to be his intellectual or emotional equal. She often feels awkward with him; he rarely talks to her anymore, finds her mawkish and sentimental. She recognizes intuitively what he is, but is still hopelessly drawn to him, perhaps in part because of the very horror of the death-in-life that totalitarianism has imposed upon them both. And yet, in her silent musings—

upon the ocean, the beach, the groves of trees, the flight of birds, and even the young boy who has seduced (is seduced by?) her husband—

which fill the six days of their holiday, she reaches a level of lyricism unsurpassed by her broken husband. Each of them carries, sealed up in themselves, “a secret history” that, by the end of the novel, destroys their illusory existence.

Arenas had entered a similarly arranged marriage, in a vain attempt to ward off the sexual witch hunt that grew to a Stalinist frenzy in Hav...

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