March 4, 2014 | by Ann Tashi Slater
Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987.
Twenty years have passed since the publication of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’s tale of his years in Cuba under the Castro regime and his life in exile in the U.S. One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge during the revolution, Arenas was persecuted for his writings and his homosexuality. He escaped in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and in 1990, dying of AIDS, committed suicide in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Published in 1993, Before Night Falls is as urgent and compelling as ever—a portrait of exile and longing, of the anguish and rage of the dispossessed.
Born in 1943 on a farm in the province of Oriente, Cuba, Arenas developed a rich inner life early on. “[Regarding] the magical, the mysterious, which is so essential for the development of creativity, my childhood was the most literary time of my life,” he wrote in Before Night Falls. Morning fog blanketing the landscape like a ghostly shroud, palm trees bursting into flame as lightning struck, dark rivers flowing endlessly to the sea—all entranced him. Most astonishing was night, when, beneath the ancient glittering sky, his grandmother told tales of the supernatural.
At sixteen, Arenas joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains, but his enthusiasm gave way to disenchantment and despair, a trajectory he chronicled in his writing. In 1962, he finished Celestino antes del alba (published in the U.S. as Singing from the Well), the first in his Pentagonía, a series of five semi-autobiographical books. Celestino won second prize in the 1965 UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) competition; in 1967, it was published in a print run of two thousand copies that sold out in one week. No further editions were issued; it was the only novel Arenas would publish in Cuba. His next novel, El mundo alucinante (published in the U.S. as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando), the tale of a renegade Mexican monk who dreams of a free society, was banned in Cuba for its “erotic passages” but smuggled out and published in France in 1968 to great acclaim. Read More »