The Ill-fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando
Graveyard of the Angels
(The last three titles comprise the first three volumes of the Pentagonía, his agony in five parts. The remaining volumes, The Color of Summer and The Assault, have still to appear in English.)
Among the Latin American writers who have attracted attention since the Sixties, Reinaldo Arenas has remained somewhat on the periphery, even although his books have been translated in many languages and, certainly in Europe, enthusiastically received. A great deal of this has to do with his being Cuban. Born in 1943, he came of age with the revolution, and, given the extraordinary gift he demonstrated with his first book, he might conceivably have become a star of the new Cuba. But rebellion against unjust authority came naturally to him, and his life in Cuba was one of increasing trouble. His open homosexuality marked him as a victim, and the fact that the novels that brought him acclaim in Spain and France had been smuggled out of Cuba without official permission led to his being kept under constant surveillance and then, in 1970, imprisoned. A few years after he was released he escaped in the Mariel boatlift in 1980.
His books are demanding. The five novels of his pentagonía, the recreation of his Cuba, are not novels in any conventional sense. In them, separate stories crowd in on one another, hallucinatory passages give way to disembodied conversation, in the first person and in the third person. There are long passages of pure lyrical writing in which the distinction between poetry and prose is blurred. Meditations are sometimes juxtaposed with official documents—reality is multifaceted, contradictory, labyrinthine. Yet throughout, the books show a high literary intelligence and a voluptuous command of different modes of language, from hallucinatory flight to science fiction. Also, his books appeared in irregular order in other countries, while he remained in Cuba, out of reach. After he died at the end of 1990 he left behind for his readers, in the form of a memoir, a map of the reality from which they were made, Before Night Falls.
He completed the memoir in New York City in August of 1990, scarcely four months before he took his own life. To complete it was part of the plan he set himself three years previously, when he was diagnosed as having AIDS. He describes how, on his return from hospital in 1987:
I dragged myself toward a photograph I have on my wall of Virgilio Piñera [the older Cuban writer, whom he particularly respected as an “incessant rebel,” and who died in Havana before he left] and I spoke to him in this way:
“Listen to what I have to tell you: I need three more years of life to finish my work, which is my vengeance against most of the human race.”
I think Virgilio’s face darkened, as if I had asked for something outrageous. It is almost three years now since that desperate request. My end is near. I expect to keep myself calm and collected until the very end.
Thank you, Virgilio.
In spite of various stays in hospital, he turned these three years to furious account. He completed the writing of The Color of Summer, the remaining volume of his pentagonía, the spine of his written work, and he revised the unpublished text of his novel The Assault. He put in order other texts that are still to be published, and went over the translation of The Doorman, the most light-heartedly inventive of his novels, a fable of the pains of exile, written in New York. He visited his friend Jorge Camacho in Spain and with him, in the fall of 1988, he issued an open letter to Fidel Castro asking for free elections in Cuba, a letter that was signed by other writers and widely published later that year. And he wrote Before Night Falls, a terse and detailed accounting of his life, particularly about his treatment by the Cuban regime, dictating the entire book, and then correcting the transcript. As he worked, he was well aware that these were to be his last words.
Before Night Falls is an extraordinary book, extraordinary in its restraint and its dignity, particularly in view of the tribulations that seemed always to dog him. He had every reason in the world to write his book of “vengeance against most of the human race,” as he promised the photograph of Virgilio Piñera; yet the tone of the book, while not without its sardonic asides, is calm, dispassionate, spare. It makes no argument; instead it recreates a life that, so passionately lived and so desperate to find space for itself, is beyond argument. The face of Reinaldo Arenas that fixes the reader from the book jacket has a gaze, wary and relentless at once, that has to be met. It is the face of an Ancient Mariner, come to tell his tale.
In New York in 1980 Arenas wrote:
To write, or create, is an act of irreverence, as much ethically as stylistically…. The novelist, perhaps more than any other kind of author, needs both space and time, spiritually as much as materially, to be able to conceive and realize his work.
What is most affecting about his memoir is Arenas’s account of his fierce struggle to secure that minimal freedom, his insistent search for that very space and time to write in a Cuba that increasingly denied it to him. He claimed the same freedom for himself sexually, to a point of recklessness. Of Havana in the 1960s and 1970s he writes: “I think that the sexual revolution in Cuba actually came about as a result of the existing sexual repression. Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever-increasing defiance.” To be an active homosexual was to choose a way of life fraught with danger, for many of his former friends and lovers turned informer, and homosexuals were increasingly persecuted by the revolution; many of them were sent to forced labor in the cane fields or to concentration camps. Arenas, as both an open homosexual and a dissident writer, was doubly doomed; the circle of his freedom was shrinking all the time.
Readers of Arenas’s novels will find in Before Night Falls the sources of many of his stories and the events in them; what they will not find, however, is their stylistic brilliance, their flights of language. The language of the memoir is stark, the sentences short and staccato, with an urgency of forward movement. He is recalling his life, ticking it off in sharp, remembered moments, against the clock, with death waiting at his elbow. He recalls his childhood in a series of short icon-like chapters, a childhood that he recreated in rhapsodic fullness in his first novel, Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well). His father was an “adventurer” who left his mother before he was born. He grew up in a houseful of women without men, presided over by his grandmother, in a poor country district in Oriente, in the obliterative poverty of Batista’s declining dictatorship. He describes the peasant superstitition by which “my grandmother would try to drive away hurricanes by making crosses with ashes,” and the violent natural life of the countryside:
At night we could hear the screeches of the frogs as they were slowly swallowed by small snakes; you could hear the squeak of a mouse being torn to pieces by a gnome owl; the desperate cackle of a hen being throttled and swallowed by a Cuban boa; the kicking and muffled cry of a rabbit quartered in the air by an owl, or the bleating sheep cut to pieces by wild dogs. The noise, the desperate clamors, the dull stamping, all those sounds were familiar companions…
At one point he writes, “I think that splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people who were indifferent toward me. My existence was not even justified, nobody cared.” That insistence on freedom became the single driving force of his existence, as his writing became its outward manifestation. It is to those years too that he surely owed his stoical determination to survive.
Hunger drove him in 1958, at the age of fifteen, to join the rebels in the Gibara mountains. Although he did not take part in the fighting, he joined in the general euphoria at Batista’s sudden collapse. As he says: “In those days I was part of the Revolution; I had nothing to lose, and it seemed then that I had much to gain.” What he did gain was a scholarship to study agricultural accounting, coupled with indoctrination, followed by work on a chicken farm in Oriente, and eventually a course in economic planning at the University of Havana. The move to Havana was a move from the solitude that had cloaked him to a world of encounters and erotic adventure. It also coincided with his emerging as a writer. By chance, he entered a story-telling competition at the National Library, and as a consequence was given a post there that allowed him to disentangle himself from agricultural accounting and devote himself almost entirely to reading and writing, hungry as he was for both.
There he wrote Celestino antes del alba, and he submitted it in 1965 to a competition sponsored by the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC). It won him an award; and when the following year his second novel, Elmundo alucinante, gained an honorable mention, his originality as a writer had to be taken into account. He was, after all, of the generation that was expected to produce a novelist of the revolution, and the revolution needed its writers. More importantly for him, this success brought him the friendship of José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, both homosexuals, both in disfavor with the revolution in spite of their considerable reputations. They became his literary mentors, at a time when he needed them, and he was sustained by their friendship when friendship had become a doubtful quantity.
Celestino was published in Havana in 1967, in a small edition (it was the only one of Arenas’s books ever to be published in Cuba). One day, Arenas received a call at the National Library from a Cuban painter called Jorge Camacho, who was visiting from Paris and who had read Arenas’s novel. Camacho and his wife, Margarita, formed a strong friendship with Arenas, which was to be a sustaining force throughout his time in Cuba. On their return to Paris, they carried with them his first two novels, which were immediately contracted for and published in Spain and France to considerable critical success. Paradoxically, this further aggravated his situation; when his second novel appeared in French in 1969, it shared the award given in Paris for Best Foreign Novel with García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. He had not, however, sought the authorization of UNEAC, but had smuggled his manuscripts out of the country. From this point on, the terms of his existence changed drastically. He was put under surveillance by State Security, and went from struggling to become a writer to struggling to survive as one.
In March of 1968, a chapter from his first novel was published in Mundo Nuevo, the magazine Emir Rodríguez Monegal edited in Paris which set in motion the boom in Latin American writing. Arenas was then forced by UNEAC to write an open letter to Rodríguez Monegal repudiating the publication and denouncing the review as “an organ of the CIA for corrupting the intellectuals of Latin America.” At the same time, he smuggled out, through the connections the Camachos always managed to keep open, an appreciative letter to Monegal, explaining the circumstances in which he had been told he had to write the official letter.
For Arenas, the connection to the Camachos was vital, for it was through them that his manuscripts could reach the outside, be published, and so confirm his existence. Of them, he writes in Before Night Falls:
For more than twenty years, one way or another, they have always managed to keep in touch with me, through a passing tourist, a coded message in a letter mailed via the usual channels, a postcard, a notice of an exhibit, a book, and hundreds of little attentions that helped to keep me going during the almost fifteen years I remained in Cuba after our first meeting.
Their constant care and concern for Arenas were heroic; that link kept him alive.
From 1970 on, when the revolution took its Stalinist turn, Arenas was seen by the regime as a man to be punished. He was first sent for six months to a labor camp in Pinar del Río, where he was ostracized and forbidden to write or to publish anything. The official humiliation of the poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, forced publicly to confess along with other Cuban writers to crimes against the revolution, led many intellectuals previously sympathetic to the revolution to denounce it openly. Soon after, Castro defiantly convened his First Congress of Education and Culture, which made it clear that there was no room in Cuba for cultural divergence in the name of art, and which went out of its way to excoriate homosexuals.
At this point, the memoir seems to change gear, to quicken. Freedom for Arenas now exists only as a private act, secret and dangerous, and yet he remains defiantly, recklessly free in his many sexual encounters, in outwitting the authorities, in his constant search for a safe shelter, and in the increasingly difficult business of concealing his manuscripts from the police. Every encroachment by the authorities seems to generate a fierce counteractivity on his part, an unpremeditated defiance. In 1969, when he had finished the manuscript of Otra Vez el Mar, the third novel of his pentagonía, he did the manuscript with a friend, who transferred it in a moment of panic into the care of two old ladies who lived at the beach. They read some of the book and, very devout, were horrified by its content. Whether they destroyed it or not, it never reappeared. He writes: “One day at the beach, thinking of my lost book, feeling as if I had lost one of my children, the most beloved, I realized, all of a sudden, that I had to go back home to my typewriter and start again. There was no other way.”
Two years later, he had rewritten the novel. This manuscript he hid under the roof tiles of his aunt’s house. When, newly released from prison, he went to recover it, it was gone; and he was made aware that it was in the hands of State Security, where he did not dare to reclaim it. So, begging the use of a typewriter, he wrote it a third time, this time managing to smuggle the manuscript out of the country. In view of the lyrical density of that novel, and the intricacy of its structure, it seems astonishing that he could carry it entire in his head. Yet one feels at once in all his novels the presence of an inestimable writer whose language seemed to flood out of him.
The years between 1973 and 1980 turned to nightmare. He was arrested and accused of being a “homosexual and enemy of the Revolution.” He escaped, was recaptured and sent to El Morro prison, where he remained until 1976. His account in the memoir of the horrors of prison and his interrogation by State Security has a kind of documentary matter-of-factness that takes hold of the reader.
The most dangerous criminals and the prisoners who ranked as ward “chiefs” would steal everything. Sometimes you had to go to mess hall carrying your few possessions—a piece of bread, a little bit of sugar, even your pillow. I did not let go of my Iliad, which I knew was much coveted by other prisoners, not for its literary value but because with its fine paper they could roll “cigarettes” by using the stuffing of bunk mattresses or pillows. Books were in great demand; prisoners used them as toilet paper, in those toilets full of shit and flies that fed on the shit, and then buzzed around us all the time. My ward was near the toilet and I had to bear not only the stench but also the noise of the bowel movements. Sometimes a special kind of herb was used in the food, on purpose I think, to cause diarrhea among the prisoners; it was horrible to have to listen from my bunk, surrounded by flies, to those furious discharges, those incessant farts, excrement falling on excrement, right next to my ward. Our bodies were so impregnated with the stench that it became part of us.
Taking a bath was something almost theoretical. Every other week, on visiting days, the ward chiefs would fill some tanks with water and we would have to line up naked and walk by those tanks, where the chiefs would fill a jug with water and pour it over each of us. We would continue to walk, soaping up until we again passed by the chiefs, who would throw another jug of water at us. But even that sort of bath was a great comfort to us. The ward chiefs would stand on top of the tanks, sticks in hand, and if anyone tried to take a second bath, they would beat him up.
Needless to say, within that group of men there were some queers who would check out the young men with good physiques and proposition them later; there was also an occasional faggot who had managed to be there with his lover. At the baths I once saw all the ward chiefs fucking an adolescent who was not even gay. One day the boy asked to be transferred out. He spoke with one of the guards and explained his predicament, but the soldier ignored him, so he had to keep on making his ass available, against his will, to all those people. Moreover, he had to wash all their clothes, take care of their things, and give them part of the food allotted to him. Like slaves, the poor fairies and defenseless adolescents had to shoo away the flies and fan those criminals.
As for himself he writes, “I had no sexual relations while in prison, not only as a precaution but because it made no sense; love has to be free, and prison is a monstrosity where love turns into bestiality.” Cornered by State Security, kept under interrogation for four months, he was forced to write and sign a confession. “After the confession I had nothing; I had lost my dignity and my rebellious spirit…. Moreover, after my confession they could also obliterate me physically.”
He had no life left in Cuba. Because of the attention drawn to his case by the Camachos in France, because of the following his books had gained outside Cuba, State Security did not dare let him leave the island; free, he was a danger to them. On his side, to continue to write and send out his work would doom him. All he could think of was escape. He had not, however, lost his rebellious spirit as he feared—there is a kind of quiet glee in his account of further evasions, further survivals, as there is in the story of his escape. A savage humor is never very far away. When the authorities guaranteed exit permits to “antisocials” who wished to leave the island, following the mass occupation of the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in April 1980, Arenas applied for an exit permit from local authorities, who did not check with State Security; he was lucky to avoid their scrutiny. He arrived in Florida just short of his thirty-seventh birthday.
Arenas had left Cuba, but it had not left him. Now, in exile, he had physical freedom, but he no longer possessed the reality that had engaged him; he felt himself a ghost. In the United States, besides, he was to discover that there were many, not all of them Cuban, who carried different Cubas in their heads. From Miami, “which was like a caricature of Cuba, the worst of Cuba,” he fled to New York. At least he had, as he said at the time, the freedom “to scream.” With a group of others who had arrived by way of Mariel, he started a magazine; he continued to work on the remaining books of his pentagonía; he published, in Mexico in 1986, a book of essays and letters called Necesidad de Libertad, which vented all his rages, all his griefs. He lectured, he traveled. In 1983, for the first time since 1967, he was reunited with the Camachos in Spain. And he contracted AIDS.
“Most people are unable to understand us nor should we expect them to; they have their own terrors, and, even if they wanted to, cannot really fathom ours, much less share them.” So writes Arenas of his exile, with Cuban Americans as much in mind as New Yorkers. Inasmuch as he always refused to be a pawn in other people’s games, his memoir by its nature remains a purely personal accounting, not a weapon for the use of others. If anyone was entitled to his rage, it was Arenas. Before Night Falls might well have been a long cry of anger, a diatribe, but it is marked much more by its fierce determination to describe his experience honestly and incontrovertibly than by anger or self-pity.
There can be a vast distance between those who proclaim human rights and those who return, like the Ancient Mariner, with their tales and evidence of human wrongs. A bent for writing like that of Arenas would have been recognized in many other countries and given ample room in which to develop; but since he was never given any room he could count on, his enormous energy was compressed to an explosive degree. He was forced into defiance, into attitudes and actions he would never have chosen. He claimed, after all, to be no more than a writer and a chronicler: his cause was his own. Like most writers, all he wanted was to see his books published; they were his justification. He ends the memoir with a luminous meditation on being freed from the past, with death waiting. “Now, the state of grace that had saved me from so many misfortunes had come to an end.” There is a noble and imperturbable dignity about Before Night Falls; it is a book above all about being free.