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 …