After Night Falls

The Revival of Reinaldo Arenas

Among his books, the beautifully contained novellas Old Rosa and Arturo, the Brightest Star are chiseled jewels perfect on their own terms. His masterpieces, Before Night Falls and Singing From the Well (his first and most cohesive novel), are unassailable works that should survive. Singing is a novel of awesome lyrical purity, containing echoes of García Lorca (the women in the household are like the daughters of Bernarda Alba turned medusas) and of Juan Rulfo's ghostly Pedro Páramo. Its maturity is even more astonishing if one knows that Reinaldo wrote it when he was only 21. The novel's limpid lyricism, infused with the spirit of Hardy's and Lawrence's pantheistic views of nature, is almost sacramental in its respect for the overpowering forces of the natural world.

He was a considerable poet, too. Poetry, as in Borges's case, was his greatest love, and arguably his highest gift. His epic poem, El Central, records and re-creates the atrocities committed against the Cuban people through the ages—and does it more succinctly and more gracefully than the novels do. At least a dozen of his poems will one day take their place among the most beautiful written in Spanish. Many writers have laid a claim to immortality with fewer—and less original—works.

Reinaldo's most valuable legacy as a man is his bravery in denouncing the crimes committed in the name of social justice. His point was that the brutalities committed by the left sting even more than those committed by the right. We expect the worst from the Pinochets of this world, but we expect nothing less than utopia from an ideology that promises us the dawn of the New Man. This betrayal of the Cuban revolution fueled the rage that galvanized the life and the work of Reinaldo Arenas, and it is ultimately responsible for making him one of the most searing satirical writers of the 20th century, a worthy successor to Aristophanes and Swift.

Reinaldo Arenas: the Sylvia Plath of Latin American letters
photo: Nestor Almendros
Reinaldo Arenas: the Sylvia Plath of Latin American letters

Plus: Ed Morales goes behind the scenes of Julian Schnabel’s new biopic of Reinaldo Arenas.

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