BORN: 1943, Oriente Province, Cuba
DIED: 1990, New York, New York, U.S.A.
GENRE: Fiction, Drama, Nonfiction
Celestino before Dawn (1967)
The Palace of the White Skunks (1975)
Farewell to the Sea (1986)
Before Night Falls (1992)
Reinaldo Arenas. Arenas, Reinaldo, photograph. Carol Halebian / Liaison / Getty Images.
A member of the generation of Cuban writers who emerged on the literary scene of the island during the 1960s, Reinaldo Arenas has been almost unanimously hailed as one of the most significant authors contributing to the formation of a ‘‘new writing’’ mode in Spanish America. His passionate works are examples ofthe radical changes experienced by Cuban society and culture during its first postrevolutionary years. Within his group of younger authors, which has come to be broadly and imprecisely identified as the ‘‘Post-Boom’’ generation, Arenas voiced staunch opposition to any sort of power, be it political or cultural, that imposes an official ideology on the imagination, on perception, and on the individual’s social conduct.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Humble Origins Arenas was born on July 16, 1943, near Holguin, in the province of Oriente, Cuba. Shortly after Arenas’s birth his father abandoned the family, and his mother moved into her parents’ home. Arenas lived there with eleven aunts, a grandmother who frequently interrupted her domestic chores to pray, and a grandfather who, Arenas says, would threaten to commit suicide every time he got drunk. Arenas learned to read and write from his mother and spent all of his childhood in this humble, rural family environment.
By 1958, his mother had moved with him to Holguin, then a major agricultural center in western Cuba. By this time, Cuba was undergoing political turmoil as Fulgencio Batista had seized power in the early 1950s. Though Batista’s government became legitimized in the mid-1950s, rebel forces led by revolutionary Fidel Castro continued to challenge his rule. At age fifteen, Arenas decided to join Castro’s revolution and fought in the nearby Sierra de Gibara against Batista’s army. After Castro-led rebel forces overthrew Batista’s government and Castro became prime minister in 1959, Arenas returned to Holguin, where he received a scholarship from the new revolutionary government to study agricultural accounting. (Castro later became president of Cuba, holding that post until his resignation in 2008.)
Upon completing his degree, Arenas went to work at a poultry farm located in the Sierra Maestra, the southern mountain range of the province, but soon he became tired of pastoral life and left for Havana, Cuba’s capital, to attend a national training program for economic planners. In 1962, he undertook this new specialization at the Universidad de la Habana but soon lost interest. The following year, he began working as a staff member of the Biblioteca Nacional and decided to make writing central to his life.
Early Success Despite Political Difficulties. Even though Arenas had been writing since age thirteen, it was not until 1964 that he was able to finish his first mature novel, Celestino before Dawn. In 1965, it received a Primera Mencidn at the Concurso Nacional de Novela Cirilo Villaverde, and it was published in Havana in 1967. The novel was well received by Cuban critics, but shortly thereafter, due in part to political pressures as Castro’s government became increasingly repressive, Arenas’s voice was stifled as the reprinting of his novel was prohibited. Arenas grew disillusioned as the revolutionary leader he once supported came to be just as dictatorial as his predecessor.
Arrests and Escape. Castro’s government began aggressively pursuing political dissidents and others deemed socially undesirable. As a homosexual and a critic of the government, Arenas was a target of harassment. He was charged with ideological deviation in 1973, and convicted for being extravagant, immoral, and for publishing abroad without official consent. He was sent to prison in Havana, but after a few months he managed to escape and remained free under disguises. In 1974, he was rearrested and remained in the Morro Castle prison in Havana. He was freed in 1976 after signing an agreement not to write again.
Rewrote Lost Novel. After Arenas’s release, however, he began rewriting his fourth and most ambitious novel, Farewell to the Sea (1982). In 1971, Arenas had given the original 1969 manuscript to a close friend in order to avoid its confiscation by the government. The friend, in turn, passed it on to some old women he knew for better security. The content of the novel apparently offended the traditional morals of the women, who proceeded to burn it. Arenas then rewrote it, and just before his arrest in 1973 he hid the manuscript in the tile roof of his Havana home. His status as an ex-convict, however, did not allow him to return to the same house, and after a failed attempt to recover the manuscript from the roof, he considered it lost for a second time.
Fled to the United States. Arenas spent 1976 through 1980 working on the third version of this novel and living a somewhat picaresque life in order to survive. He did a variety of menial jobs and constantly changed residences. On May 5, 1980, Arenas, one of the thousands of Cuban refugees who left the island from the port of Mariel, arrived in Florida. After a short stay in Miami, he moved to New York City, where he wrote the rest of his life without refraining from passionate denunciations of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
Life and Cuba Covered in Last Book. His final work, Before Night Falls (1993), is an autobiography that covers, both tragically and humorously, key episodes of his life from early childhood to his last days in the United States. More than an autobiographical work, the book is a dramatic example of a poetic memoir and testimony. In Before Night Falls, Arenas exposes the corruption and evil that have dominated Cuban political history and that finally led the nation into the iron grip of Castro and ‘‘political suicide.’’ It is also a universal indictment of the basic hypocrisy and dishonesty of society. In order to denounce and fight this social oppression, Arenas irreverently brings forward his own homosexuality and emphasizes the liberating dimension of writing.
On December 6, 1990, after several years of suffering from AIDS, he wrote a letter to be published after his death and committed suicide in his New York apartment.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Arenas's famous contemporaries include:
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): One of the few American novelists to live in and write extensively about Cuba.
Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar (1901-1973): Cuban dictator overthrown by Castro and rebel forces in 1958.
Fidel Castro (1926- ): Controversial president of Cuba from 1959 until 2008.
Che Guevara (1928-1967): Iconic guerrilla leader who helped to overthrow Batista in the Cuban Revolution.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Arenas was an openly gay writer in a time when Cuba was trying to repress and oppress all forms of what the government considered ''immoral'' behavior. The difficulties he faced were similar to those faced by many writers and artists; here are a few works that deal with this theme.
Gypsy Ballads (1928), poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. In this collection, Garcia Lorca explored themes of sexuality amidst a romantic and surrealistic Spanish background.
Giovanni's Room (1956), a novel by James Baldwin. In this work, a young man in Paris begins an affair with Giovanni, who is due to be executed.
Howl (1955), a poem by Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's best known poem celebrates the lives of the disenfranchised, the disrespected, and the misunderstood people of the Beat generation.
Before Night Falls (2000), a film by Julian Schnabel. This film based on Arenas's final autobiographical novel stars Oscar winner Javier Bardem.
Works in Literary Context
Greatly influenced by his experiences during a turbulent era in Cuban history, Arenas’s fictions are characterized by surrealist imagery, satire, and elements of the fantastic while being rooted in reality and sincere emotion. Considered a subversive intellectual and a deviant writer by Cuban authorities, his work reflects the literary marginalization, political confinement, and exile that he suffered.
Use of Parody. Parody is the imitation of an existing work or style in order to achieve humor or drive home a message different from the original work. Parts of Celestino before Dawn closely follow some of Andre Breton’s surrealistic poetical formulas, while others draw on verses by Jorge Borges, Arthur Rimbaud, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Eliseo Diego, among others. In Farewell to the Sea, there are parodic reminiscences of works by Homer, Walt Whitman, and the Cuban writer Jose Marti. In general, the parodic function of Arenas’s works undermines the controlling and often political forces in the novels.
Oppression and the Illusion of Freedom. Throughout Arenas’s works the motif of ‘‘no escape’’ keeps reminding the reader that absolute freedom and truth is illusory. However, this is offset by the passionate longing for harmony in all of Arenas’s works. In the face of divine silence and human blindness, liberation and insight may be found in writing and rewriting, which reveals the imagination’s boundless capacity.
The trilogy of Celestino before Dawn, The Palace of the White Skunks, and Farewell to the Sea can be considered as one continuous text that deals with the central theme of oppression. The first novel is the story of a child who lives a cruel life of persecution and punishment at the hands of his grandparents. The young anonymous narrator tells in a lyrical manner of his liberating experiences with his alter ego, the young cousin Celestino, whose predilection for poetic writing constitutes a major transgression from the grandfather’s vision of order.
The second novel of this group involves an interlude in the life of the same narrator, now an adolescent living in Holguin; he is on the verge of sexual awakening while his country undergoes the crumbling effects of the insurgent fight against the forces of Batista. The death of the adolescent narrator coincides with the end of the novel and confirms the allegorical dimension of the story. Farewell to the Sea has a different hero, a young poet living in Cuban revolutionary society, and the novel presents a day-to-day account of a vacation at the seashore with his wife. The first half of the book comprises the wife’s diary, and the second half is a long poem written by the young man. As in the previous novel, death seems the only feasible escape, but this time in the form of the husband’s suicide.
While Arenas has been recognized as an important Latin American writer and lauded for his work, he was widely censored in his own country, limiting his popular influence there. His voice is still considered significant, however, especially among international audiences.
Works in Critical Context
Having emerged from a totalitarian milieu that he described in Encounter as one holding that ‘‘there’s nothing more dangerous than new ideas,’’ Arenas continues to garner attention and praise as an eminent writer who— in the tradition of fantastic Latin American fiction— depicts the reality of life in contemporary Cuba.
Commenting in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the effect of the author’s writings, Alberto Manguel observed, ‘‘Reinaldo Arenas’ Cuba is a dreamworld of repeatedly frustrated passions.’’ The critic further theorized that the writer’s works have turned Castro into a ‘‘literary creation,’’ rendering the dictator ‘‘immortal’’ and ‘‘condemn[ing him] to repeat [his] sins for an eternity of readers.’’
Hallucinations. Hallucinations, Arenas’s second novel, chronicles the life of nineteenth-century Mexican monk and adventurer Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, who manages an unbelievable series of escapes from his captors only to fight in an ultimately doomed revolution. ‘‘Servando’s real crime,’’ theorized Alan Schwartz in Washington Post Book World, ‘‘is his refusal to be demoralized in a world completely jaded and dedicated to the exploitation of power and wealth.’’ Arenas defended Hallucinations against claims by several critics that the surrealistic rendering of Servando’s exploits should have more closely approximated the monk’s actual adventures.
‘‘True realism,’’ the author told interviewer Ana Roca, ‘‘is fantasy, the fantastic, the eclectic. It knows no bounds.’’ Arenas further maintained that the depiction of Servando he envisioned could only be accomplished by weaving historical fact with fantasy: ‘‘My aim was to portray this compelling personality as a part of the American myth, the New World myth... part raving madman and part sublime, a hero, an adventurer, and a perennial exile.’’ Schwartz conceded that any flaws in Arenas’s ‘‘ambitious technique’’ were “overshadowed by [the author’s] madcap inventiveness, the acid satire, and the powerful writing.’’ Despite (or because of) this, the antirevolutionary implications of Hallucinations led to the banning of the book in Cuba by the Castro government.
Responses to Literature
1. Determine how coincidental it is that Arenas was eventually imprisoned much like the main character in Hallucinations. Are there any other ways in which Arenas’s life mirrored that of his character?
2. Some scholars have suggested that times of great change and conflict result in greater works of art than times of peace and prosperity. How might the oppression of Cuba have had a positive influence on Arenas’s writing?
3. Compare some passages in Before Night Falls with the movie version of the book. Is Arenas’s Cuba much like the movie version’s? In what ways is the movie different? Why do you think these changes were made?
4. Can you find any passages in Before Night Falls where Arenas foreshadows his own death? How do you think committing suicide affects the legacy of an artist, if at all?
Guzman, Christina. Interview with Arenas, in Arenas’s La vieja rosa. Caracas, Venezuela: Cruz del Sur, 1980. Luis, William. ‘‘Present and Future Antislavery Narratives: Reinaldo Arenas’s Graveyard of the Angels.’’ In Literary Bondage: Slavery in Cuban Narrative. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Valero, Roberto.El desamparado humor de Reinaldo Arenas. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1991.
Borinsky, Alicia. ‘‘Re-escribir y escribir: Arenas, Menard, Borges, Cervantes, Fray Servando.’’ Revista Iberoamericana 41, nos. 92-93 (1975): 605-16.
Bush, Andrew. ‘‘The Riddled Text: Borges and Arenas.’’ Modern Language Notes (March 1988): 374-97.
Diego, Eliseo. ‘‘Sobre Celestino antes del alba.’’ Casa de las Americas (1967): 162-66.
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez. ‘‘The Labyrinthine World of Reinaldo Arenas.’’ Latin American Literary Review 8, no. 16 (1980): 126-31.
Olivares, Jorges. ‘‘Carnival and the Novel: Reinaldo Arenas’’ Elpalacio de las blanquisimas mofetas.’’ Hispanic Review 53 (Autumn 1985): 467-76.
Roca, Ana. Interview with Arenas. Americas 31 (September 1981): 36-38.