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No Sorrow Left Unturned

Old Rosa

by Reinaldo Arenas, translated by Ann Tashi Slater, by Andrew Hurley
Grove, 106 pp., $16.95

Skunk hour, in Robert Lowell’s well-known poem, is a time of jaunty, disreputable defiance. The skunks march up Main Street, ready to take over the town. They are the scavenger’s answer to the poet’s Miltonic despair. “My mind’s not right,” the poet says, and “I myself am Hell.” The skunks don’t say anything, they just dive into the trash, making both mind and Hell seem irrelevant, almost an indulgence. The human skunks in the work of the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas are too depressed and depleted for any such bravado. Survival for them is not defiance, it is part of the penance, what they are condemned to. For the torment of Hell is not its pain or disorder, but its obdurate sameness. Even another Hell would be a comfort, but there is no other:

Another hell, another hell, maybe more monotonous, maybe even more suffocating, maybe even more disgusting and reprehensible than this one, but another one, at least.”

Now I see that hell is always what you can’t reject. What’s just simply there.”

And yet there is a lurid life in the writing of these disasters a genuine exuberance in the detailing of miseries. It’s as if a Cuban version of Buñuel’s Los Olvidados had been shot in brilliant Technicolor.

Reinaldo Arenas was born in 1943, in rural Oriente Province, Cuba; died in New York at the beginning of December 1990. At the age of fifteen he left home to join Castro’s revolt against Batista, and in the early years of the revolution his literary talent was quickly recognized by established writers like Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. He published a novel, Celestino antes del alba (1967), revised and retitled as Cantando en el pozo (1982), translated as Singing from the Well (1987). He wrote a second novel, El mundo alucinante, but couldn’t get it printed in Cuba, apparently because of its treatment of homosexuality. The book appeared in Mexico in 1969, and was rapidly translated into French, English, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, and Japanese.

At this point Arenas was a celebrity abroad and virtually unknown at home. He published a book of short stories in Uruguay; was arrested in Cuba on charges of immorality, corruption of minors, causing a public scandal, and other, rather more baroque crimes, like being “extravagant.” He escaped from prison but was arrested again, and sent to a correctional camp for two years. Released, he lived in anonymity in Havana. He escaped from Cuba in 1980 in the Mariel boatlift and was able to rewrite and publish his confiscated work, notably two further volumes of the five-volume sequence begun with Singing from the Well: a pentagonía, as Arenas called it, a pentagony, an agony in five parts. Otra vez el mar (1982), translated as Farewell to the Sea (1986, reviewed in The New York Review, March 27, 1986), is the third book in the sequence; El palacio de las blanquísimas mofetas (1980), here translated as The Palace of the White Skunks, is the second. The other volumes are completed—most of the writing belongs to the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Arenas lectured in the United States and elsewhere, wrote essays and two novels: La Loma del Angel (1987), translated as Graveyard of the Angels in the same year, and El Portero, written 1984–1986, due to appear as The Doorman in June 1991. He still lived however in considerable poverty on New York’s West Side; contracted AIDS, and committed suicide. He was a profuse, imaginative, well-read, and disturbing writer, a traitor to silence, as he says of one of his characters; a novelist who sought to give voices to the voiceless, and not only the obviously voiceless, the visibly suppressed, but also those victims and sufferers whose distress eludes us, perhaps because they are too many or because we can’t read their muted style. In Arenas’s fiction even the most cramped or muffled minds are lent a fabulous fluency: no sorrow is left unturned.

Old Rosa, composed of two novellas written in 1966 and 1971, is described as a novel in two stories, and this is, in miniature, a good definition of Arenas’s whole fictional opus: consciousness flows from book to book, characters change, die, disappear, but the story continues. The Cuban writer Severo Sarduy writes of Arenas’s “recurrent and musical” narrative, of his novels as one “long uninterrupted sentence,” but also insists on the play of different voices, each character having his/her own rhetoric and images and obsessions.1 The author is a ventriloquist, projecting his life into a tissue of other, imagined minds, but those minds are possibilities, extensions of a plight, not mere duplications in another key. One thinks of Lorca depicting a house full of desperate women in La Casa de Bernarda Alba; the desperation was theirs and his, and indeed in one register the desperation of a whole country. It is in this sense that Arenas’s claim that he is writing “the secret history of the Cuban people” is not as extravagant as it looks. The secret is not in the events but in the mentalities. Similarly, when Arenas says his novel Hallucinations recounts the life of the Mexican monk Fray Servando Teresa de Mier “as it was, as it may have been, as I should have liked it to have been,” he is not offering those perspectives as alternatives. The books aims for all three, and this is why Arenas can say he wants it to be, rather than a historical or a biographical novel, simply a novel. His pentagony is both a sequence of autobiographical novels and a sequence of…novels.

The Old Rosa of the title story is a landowner who sets fire to her house and herself in a rage of frustration at a world which has escaped her control. Rosa is tough and pious. She drives her husband to suicide by rejecting, after her third child, all his sexual approaches; her very prayers are said to sound like orders. But now the Cuban revolution has taken her fields and her elder son; her daughter has married a black and gone to live in the city; her younger, favorite son is homosexual. She meets, in the shape of an encroaching hallucination, an angel who represents all the desire and grace and happiness she has refused in her life, and refused, she now sees, for nothing. She thinks the angel may be the Devil come to mock her, feels she has “been swindled all her life,” grasps “the dimensions of an immeasurable solitude.” But then she recognizes the rigidity and hollowness even of her renunciation, the way her religion has allowed her to deceive herself. The angel is a more intimate, less official enemy, a Catholic’s version of Henry James’s beast in the jungle: “But you’re not the Devil, she said finally, and now her words seemed to stumble upon the terrifying answer. You are something worse. You are nothing.” At this moment the house begins to burn and Rosa and the angel are consumed together: “The two figures…no longer were distinguishable.”

The opening of “Old Rosa” affords a very good glimpse of Arenas’s style:

In the end she went out to the yard, almost enveloped in flames, leaned against the tamarind tree that no longer flowered, and began to cry in such a way that the tears seemed never to have begun, but to have been there always, flooding her eyes, producing that creaking noise, like the noise of the house at the moment when the flames made the strongest posts totter and the flashing frame came down in an enormous crackling that pierced the night like a volley of fireworks.

There is quite a bit more than we need here—the fireworks weaken the picture rather than strengthen it, and the “enormous crackling” seems mere bombast compared to the discreet, domestic “creaking noise”—but the ancient weeping and the transfer of the creaking from fire to tears, masked as a simple simile, are very powerful, and Arenas prolongs this scene with a string of conditional, bifurcating notions which place us both inside and outside it. Rosa looks like a little girl in the sort of story “she had never read”; if a neighbor had passed, he/she would have seen that this was Old Rosa; but if Rosa had screamed, no one would have heard her for the sound of the fire. Rosa might have thought, My God, this is hell, and she might have prayed, but she didn’t. The effect is to set up fleeting, parallel fictions, other Rosas; to make writer and reader Rosa’s allies but also to remind them of their difference from her, the books they have read, what they themselves might have thought, their safety from the fire.

Arturo, in the second story in the book, is Rosa’s youngest child, now in a Cuban camp for homosexuals. Like Rosa, he is dying as the story begins and ends. He has been shot while trying to escape, and the text recounts his various strategies for survival in the camp, and meditates on the strange collusions that power exacts from weakness. Arturo separates himself mentally from the other prisoners, from what he sees as “their world…their repulsive lives…their endless, stupid conversations, with their exaggerated, effeminate, affected, artificial, false, gross, grotesque posturings,” but the very language suggests the fragility and anxiousness of the separation, and we learn that Arturo has become an expert mime of every stereotyped homosexual gesture, because he thinks “it’s easy to fit in anywhere, slip into any reality at all, as long as you don’t take it seriously, as long as you secretly scorn it”:

Arturo did begin to use that affected, dizzying slang of theirs, begin to cackle and howl with laughter like any ordinary queen, to sing, pose, shadow his eyes and dye his hair…until he had mastered, come to possess, all the cant, every typical movement and feature of the imprisoned gay world….

But does Arturo scorn this world? Can he, should he? What bothers him about “them,” the other prisoners, is their agile complicity with the system that persecutes them, their ability to “trivialize the pain”:

They would do anything, suffer any terror, turn the other cheek to any insult, and immediately incorporate it into the folklore, the customs, the daily calamities, yes, they had a gift for transforming terror into familiar ritual.

One hardly knows whether to admire or despair of such a gift. “Leopards break into the temple,” Kafka wrote in a parable Arenas is perhaps thinking of here, “and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.”

Like Rosa, Arturo sees an angel, only this is a benign figure, an ideal future companion, the prince who will one day redeem all the dross and mess of ordinary, disfigured life. Arturo has found an escape in writing, in imagining a fabulous alternative world where there are brilliant, precious palaces and fountains and music, and rows of stately elephants; a dwelling worthy of an angel. But is this an escape? Don’t all such escapes confirm the very prison they seek to deny? Where else but in penury would one dream up such riches?

These are the questions the story is designed to pose. Is it true, for example, that “reality lies not in the terror one feels and suffers but in the creations that overpower that terror, and wipe it out,” and who could answer this question for us? Or is the dead, tortured body of a fellow prisoner the ultimate, absolute real, erasing all fond fantasies and visions? Is time another such reality, “aggressive, fixed, unyielding, unbearable”? We can’t deny the second, harsher reality; can’t want to undersell the power and freedom of the imagination, even harassed, even imprisoned. Not too long before his internment Arturo was “still convinced that a cluster of signs, a cadence of images perfectly described—words—might save him…” The tense suggests he is no longer convinced, but the signs are what he has, and he dies having “reached the monumental row of stately, regal elephants” which frames this story like a frieze formed of Arturo’s writing. He has died, that is, into his fantasy; not saved but not simply canceled.

The two stories make a novel not just because they narrate the final days of two members of the same family, and not just because Arturo, about to be killed, confuses the brutal camp lieutenant with his mother, and places her at the head of the shooting party. She is “the only person who had ever loved him” but she had also tried to kill him on discovering his sexual preferences. She is the unavoidable, the prison behind the prison. But the novel puts the two characters together on another plane outside the particular events of their lives. They meet different angels, but embody the same despair, the same feeling of being “condemned to live in a world where only frustration made sense and had a place.”

This world is historical, not some eternalized human condition; but it is not simply Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s. It is every (historical) world which regularly resorts to repression and makes difference and deviance routinely punishable. Some of the contributors to the Hernández Miyares–Rozencvaig collection rather cheerfully insist on what they see as the counterrevolutionary, antiprogressive tendency of Arenas’s writing, as if it was all right to be a reactionary as long as you were against Castro. But it is the subversive quality of the writing that seems to me most notable, its refusal not of progress or revolution but of a rigid correctness, of sentimentality and bullying. It is writing that seeks to construct, as Juan Goytisolo says, “a habitable mental space”2 against the political and moral odds. The mere possibility of such a space is enough to make many people, on the left and on the right, want to invade it, abolish it.

All of Arenas’s skunks dream and some of them dream novels, pour their imaginations on to paper. Their minds are not right, but their world is not right either; their very unhappiness is a form of protest. At the center of The Palace of the White Skunks is Fortunato, a boy who, like Arenas, runs off to join the rebels in 1958. Like Arturo, Fortunato has discovered in writing a promise of salvation; but not only for himself. He is “like a lightning rod for terror,” he thinks, “for terror in all its variety,” and he insists that he has been all the members of his desolate family, that he is the emissary of their song, their isolation. Thus he has been his bitter grandfather, a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba from the Canary Isles; his pious, crazed grandmother; his spinster aunt, interminably locked in the bathroom; his married aunt, abandoned by her husband and forced to return home with two children to care for; those two precocious misbehaving children themselves; his other aunt, haunted by her dead daughter, who committed suicide at thirteen; that daughter too.

Many times—all the time, really—he had been all of them, and he had suffered for them, and perhaps when he had been them (for he had more imagination than they did, he could go beyond the mere here-and-now) he had suffered more than they, deep within himself, deep within his own, invariable terror.

The one person he hasn’t been, can’t be, is his mother, who has gone off to work in the United States; she is Fortunato’s betrayer and only fixed resource, he would love her if his resentment would let him.

All the time really” is a Nabokovian gag, reminding us that all these creatures are written, inhabitants of the imagination of Fortunato/Arenas, since he is, doubly, the only voice they have: because their pain would otherwise go unrecorded, and because they are fictional anyway. Fictional, but not without live counterparts, and most of them drawn, I assume, from models found in Arenas’s childhood in the Cuban countryside and in the town of Holguín. Like Arenas’s Mexican monk, Fortunato’s family is both inside and outside the mind of the memorialist: as it is, as it might have been, and as he revamps it. There is of course something self-serving and self-deluding in Fortunato’s sense of his mission: how could he suffer more than the others do? He is too much in love with his job as scapegoat, and his “deep, invariable terror” seems over-written, however genuine and constant the terror might basically be. But then he is young, and Arenas hasn’t written about him ironically.

He hasn’t written any of this book ironically; he has written it lyrically (“The moon moistened its cold embittered face in the clouds”), making excess and stylistic risk a kind of signature. Certainly there has to be a danger of coyness in a novel that begins, “Death is out there in the backyard, playing with the wheel off a bicycle.” What staves off the coyness, leaving us with just the danger, is the intensity and detail of the evoked reality (the broken, once much-ridden bicycle rather than the allegorical reaper), and the intelligence of the narrator’s reflections on what is happening, the sense of a mind trying to make sense of miserably fragmented lives, battered by poverty and strangled desire.

But what was God for them? God was above all the possibility of crying their lamentations, their only real possibility. God offered them the occasion, which all men and women need if they are not to become absolute monsters, of being children from time to time, with their whining and their complaints, their anger, their fits of tears…

There are grim jokes too, as when the grandmother is described as “screaming ‘I can’t take it anymore’ till you can’t take it anymore.” Arenas has been reading Joyce and Rimbaud and he makes an entire section of the work a phantasmagoric play in the manner of the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses, and echoes the prose poems of Illuminations. He plays with the layout of the page, inserting paragraphs of comment from the characters in small corners of different print. He quotes film announcements and beauty advice, as well as revolutionary bulletins from the late 1950s.

Fortunato also has the nightmare I have associated with Henry James—“the certainty that nothing, not even something terrible, would ever truly happen to him”—and one of his aunts longs for “the consolation of some terrible disgrace, some awful misery, some unbearable bad luck.” Fortunato/Arenas grants her wish, sends her patrolling the streets looking in vain for a man and has her beaten, robbed, thoroughly humiliated. And Arenas saves Fortunato from his nightmare by having him arrested by Batista’s troops, tortured, allowed to run free, and then shot and hanged. This is a place where “the interpreting ceases,” Fortunato thinks. “And all the games vanish, and all the flights, all the escapes crash into each other and fuse, burst, and form a hard brick wall.” Except that they don’t, at least not in fiction, and not in the mind of anyone prepared to remember or imagine the missing. Everyone dies many times, and Arenas allows Fortunato and his young cousin a talkative life after death, so he knows that something terrible has happened to him; and will go on happening to him, since hell is all there is and ever was. Even happy or beautiful moments feed the horror. “Everything becomes golden, fleeting, glorious,” the narrator reflects, “so that one would think the world was made to be lost.” But then it is made (again and again) before it is lost, and Arenas’s writing—impeccably translated here, as I hope my quotations may suggest—offers us the drama of the making as well as the document of the ruin.

Letters

Arenas’s Last Words June 27, 1991

  1. 1

    In J.E. Hernández Miyares and P. Rozencvaig, eds., Reinaldo Arenas: Alucinaciones, fantasía y realidad (HarperCollins, 1990), a substantial collection of essays, from which I have taken most of the information for this piece.

  2. 2

    Quoted from Reinaldo Arenas: Alucinaciones, fantasía y realidad.

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