No Sorrow Left Unturned

Old Rosa

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

Reinaldo Arenas
Reinaldo Arenas; drawing by David Levine

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…

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