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Ten years after Reinaldo Arenas’s grim ending—he killed himself in 1990 in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment, where he lived in poverty, ravaged by AIDS, without health insurance—the exiled Cuban writer is in vogue. Last summer saw the belated publication of The Color of Summer (the final novel in Arenas’s pentagonía about Cuban history), and Julian Schnabel has directed a powerful film based on his autobiography, Before Night Falls. Who could have predicted it? His memorial service was attended by fewer than a dozen people. Walking out of the church, Tom Colchie, our mutual agent, said to me, “When he was alive, I couldn’t give his books away.”
If ever there were a writer less destined to become one, it would be Reinaldo Arenas. The son of illiterate peasants, he had little formal education, and carved with a knife his first poems on tree trunks in the Cuban countryside. It was good training for what was to come. Arenas’s life was about the act of writing—writing as salvation and, most important, writing as revenge. As a fugitive from the law, he wrote high up in the canopy of trees in Havana’s parks, where he hid from the Cuban police. He continued to write in El Morro prison, a fortress built by the Spaniards during colonial times that early in the revolution became a dungeon where homosexuals, political dissidents, and other undesirables were locked up. By his own account, Arenas rewrote three times his voluminous novel Farewell to the Sea, a work that kept being confiscated and disappearing from his and his friends’ homes. His epic poem, El Central, is dedicated to “my dear friend R., who made me a present of 87 sheets of blank paper.” He penned the monumental The Color of Summer and his expansive autobiography while dying of AIDS. By comparison, the heroic Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who had to memorize her poems so they would not be found by Stalin’s goons, had it easy.
Weeks before Reinaldo died, when I went to visit him at his apartment, he gave me a copy of his book of poems, Voluntad de Vivir Manifestándose, and a manuscript copy of Before Night Falls. When I saw Reinaldo again I was able to tell him how utterly extraordinary I thought they were. “I’m glad you think so,” he said, in a tone that suggested he realized the magnitude of his achievement. After he died, I tried to communicate my excitement about the greatness of these late accomplishments, but my friends, Latin Americans and North Americans alike, dismissed my enthusiasm. When Before Night Falls appeared in Latin America and Spain—despite glowing endorsements by Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Mario Vargas Llosa—it went mostly unread.
Fortunately, the appearance in English of the autobiography was treated as a major event, and Reinaldo was discovered by many gay readers who, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, found that the man’s struggles, and his end, resonated with their recent experiences. He became a darling of academia, where several of his books are required reading and the object of much abstruse deconstruction.
It’s beginning to look like Reinaldo will become the Sylvia Plath of Latin American letters. He shared with Plath a talent for self-dramatization and a fury that could scorch anyone who got too close. If Plath’s nemeses were her parents and her husband, Reinaldo’s were Communism and Fidel Castro. Perhaps his politics, as well as his homosexuality, were responsible for the scorn heaped on him by the Latin American leftist intelligentsia. But to mistake him for a reactionary is a grotesque travesty of who the man was. Reinaldo, for example, confronted the Cuban community in Miami with their racism, homophobia, and materialism. He was equally critical of the worship of money in the United States, and of the gay movement which aspired to embrace the middle-class values that Reinaldo despised.
He had a streak of John the Baptist, raging at the injustices of the world. His dualistic vision allowed him to see both sides of the coin and not flinch when it came to writing about what he saw. The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called Singing From the Well “one of the most beautiful novels ever written about childhood, adolescence, and life in Cuba,” but in Before Night Falls Reinaldo writes that upon meeting Fuentes he felt he was in the presence of a man who talked like a computer, full of programmed answers. Was this return of bile for generosity an appalling ingratitude? Or was it yet another example of Reinaldo telling the truth, as he saw it, regardless?
Most of his novels, though filled with moments of exceptional brilliance and genius (at his best there’s no writer alive who can touch him), are marred by rococo excesses. I find the novels’ amorphous, repetitious structures often enervating. The most conventional and accessible novel he wrote, The Doorman, was also the least compelling; this defanged satire of New York and New Yorkers showed Reinaldo’s imperfect understanding of North American society.
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.
Plus: Ed Morales goes behind the scenes of Julian Schnabel’s new biopic of Reinaldo Arenas.