Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987.
Hotel Habana Libre. Photo: Sandino235, via Wikimedia Commons
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.
In 1973, while Arenas and a friend were swimming at the beach, their belongings were stolen by some men they’d just had sex with in the mangroves. When they reported the theft, the police accused them of public lewdness and disturbing the peace. Later, even though the men were of age, Arenas would be charged with corruption of minors. The case against him gained momentum, with the government’s “evidence” including his publishing activity abroad, his homosexuality, and a statement from UNEAC declaring him immoral. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape the island, including on an inner tube, Arenas was incarcerated at El Morro, a former Spanish fortress overlooking Havana Harbor. In this hellhole of rape, murder, and torture, Arenas suffered very dark days, including a period of solitary confinement in a one-meter-high cell. “I must confess,” he wrote in Before Night Falls, “that I never recovered from my experiences in Cuban jails; I think no former prisoner can.”
Released in 1976, Arenas wandered about, jobless and homeless, writing when he could and trying to stay under the radar. When, in 1979, a group of visiting American professors inquired after him, people said they had no idea who he was. The most promising lead came from someone who’d heard Arenas was living under a bridge somewhere. “I had suddenly become invisible,” Arenas wrote. “[People], perhaps out of mere cowardice, forgot I existed, though we had shared long friendships.” In those years, he saw his “youth vanish without ever having been a free person … I had never been allowed to be a real human being in the fullest sense of the word … I lived in terror in my country and with the hope of someday being able to escape.”
When he at last succeeded, slipping out in the chaos of the Mariel boatlift, it was only to discover that true escape was impossible. Attacked by leftist intellectuals for his denunciations of the Castro regime, condemned by some of his publishers for leaving Cuba, “despised and forsaken” by Miami’s Cuban exile community, Arenas moved after a few months to New York. He fell in love with the city’s tremendous vitality, but found no lasting solace. In Before Night Falls, recorded on twenty cassettes and finished in the last months of his life, he wrote, “The exile is a person who, having lost a loved one, keeps searching for the face he loves in every new face and, forever deceiving himself, thinks he has found it.”
* * *
Late on a warm night in 1987, I left Miami for Havana to report on contemporary Cuban writing and see Arenas’s environment firsthand. I’d met Arenas in 1983, when I interviewed him for my comparative literature thesis one fall afternoon at Princeton. The thesis included my translations of some of his work, one of which, a novella entitled “Old Rosa,” was later published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories.
As the Challenger Airlines plane churned through the predawn darkness, I recalled Arenas’s dedication in his novella The Brightest Star—“To Nelson, in the air”—in memory of Nelson Rodriguez Leyva, a friend and fellow writer who was executed in 1971, at the age of eighteen, after he’d tried to hijack a Cubana domestic flight to the U.S. And I remembered the horrifying story told by poet Armando Valladares in Against All Hope, the memoir of the twenty-two years he was imprisoned by the Castro regime. According to a recent New York Times report, Cuba had the greatest number of political prisoners of any country in the world. Some were journalists—not foreign ones as far as I knew, but I’d heard that foreign reporters were sometimes denied entry, expelled, or detained on arrival.
In about half an hour, the lights of the island came into view and we began our descent.
What I’d forgotten—or been unable to imagine—on the way to Havana was that somewhere among the horror stories would lie another story. It was the melancholy beauty of the city that surprised me most. The pastel, salt-worn buildings with iron gratings over the windows and enclosed leafy patios; the restless, encircling sea. Men with slicked-back hair cruised the streets in vintage Dodges and Cadillacs. Women in sleeveless tops, cotton skirts, and sandals stood waiting for the bus. At the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, lovers strolled along stone arcades, a pharmacy sold medicines in white ceramic bottles painted with blue flowers, and for five centavos, mineral water poured from a creamy porcelain jar. I bought a Granma newspaper from a vendor outside my hotel and noticed it was the previous day’s edition. “Da lo mismo,” the man said, his leathery face unsmiling. It doesn’t make any difference.
Havana was young men and women in military fatigues, people calling me Compañera Ana (Comrade Ann). It was an evening at the ballet, where a man gave me a rose and a note: We are stockpiling sardines. It was flea-bitten, emaciated dogs; people waiting in line all night to buy deodorant and women asking if I could spare them a lipstick; impromptu salsa jam sessions, men drumming on soda cans or against walls; the poet Eliseo Diego reading me his translation of Yeats’s “When You Are Old” one heat-stunned afternoon. An American couple who, sure their hotel room was bugged, found a cluster of wires under the carpet and cut them, at which point the chandelier in the room below crashed to the floor. It was Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house, where everything was kept just as he’d left it in 1960: the typewriter, the visor he wore while writing, the tombstones for his cats. It was a bookstore near the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton) where the book of the week was Arthur Eaglefield Hull’s La armonía moderna: su explicación y aplicación (Modern Harmony: Its Explanation and Application; © 1915). In dilapidated mansions converted to offices, employees slept on desks under performance charts with tattered gold paper stars glued to them; in stores, clerks slumbered on top of the merchandise. At restaurants, waiters ignored you, chatting and laughing amongst themselves, and—if they ever did get around to taking your order—almost nothing on the menu was available.
Over ice cream at the Coppelia—an open-air ice-cream parlor with staggeringly long lines—or chop suey and beer at Mandarin restaurant, or cocktails at the Bar Azul, where a window behind the bar provided an underwater view of the pale limbs of swimmers in the pool—I talked to writers. The older, well-known ones, many of whom had, like Arenas, at first supported the Revolution, were long gone. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, no longer allowed to publish in Cuba, had been in exile in Europe since the mid-sixties. José Lezama Lima, censured by the regime for the homosexual passages in his novel Paradiso, had died in 1976, and Virgilio Piñera, jailed and ostracized for his political views and homosexuality, died under mysterious circumstances in 1979. Heberto Padilla left Cuba in 1980 after being imprisoned for criticizing the Revolution and forced to denounce friends and family.
The newer writers I spoke with, mostly men, were in their twenties and early thirties. Some, like Arenas, were originally from the countryside, and said that in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, their talent would never have been discovered, not least because the literacy rate was only about seventy-five percent, especially in rural areas. Before the Revolution, they told me, being a writer was something to be ashamed of—there were hardly any bookstores, and it was almost impossible to make money writing. But now writers were well-respected, bookstores could be found in even the smallest towns, and publishing was subsidized by the state. Writers were free to write whatever they wanted: instead of writing only about things like the heroes of the Sierra Maestra, the literacy campaign, the Bay of Pigs, the adjustment of the bourgeois to the new society, they were now writing science fiction, spy novels, horror, erotica.
“If people aren’t writing what they want to, that’s their problem,” one writer told me. “No themes are taboo in the way they used to be. We’re writing about sex, divorce, problems with the system.” The dark days of censorship, middle-of-the-night house searches and arrests, were over. “For a book to be published,” another writer explained, “it has to be good. If people aren’t getting published, it’s because their work isn’t good enough.” But the one thing you could not do, he said, was criticize the Revolution. Problems within the Revolution, yes, but not the Revolution itself. In a speech made soon after his triumph, Castro had insisted that artists were entitled to freedom of expression; the only caveat was that this expression must accord with the aims of the Revolution. “¡Dentro de la Revolución, todo!” Castro thundered. “¡Contra la Revolución, nada!” “Within the Revolution, everything! Against the Revolution, nothing!”
Almost everyone was kind, funny, eager to talk, and, as we got to know each other, more and more willing to deviate from the party line. “It’s a question of maintaining a delicate balance between being honest with yourself and passing the censors,” one writer explained. “To tell you the truth, it’s stifling here. I feel like I’m suffocating.” People were desperate for books and magazines: one journalist offered me anything I wanted from his library if I would send him reading materials from the States. “I don’t understand the U.S. and el bloqueo,” he said, referring to the American embargo against Cuba, in effect since 1960. “If I were Ronald Reagan I’d be sending everything I could to Cuba: books, magazines, movies.”
Important matters were never discussed on the telephone. People worried that someone might be listening, that they might be reported for saying something “counter-revolutionary.” I spent long windy evenings at houses with the doors and windows left open to keep the neighbors from getting suspicious. It was so difficult to catch what people were saying that I began to wonder if I was getting hard of hearing—but then I realized that most of my conversations were in crowded rooms, in private offices with the doors open to noisy corridors.
With each day, I felt more nervous and exhausted. It was the disjunction: how to reconcile the island’s brutal government with the warmth of the people and the beauty of the surroundings? I was followed everywhere by plainclothesmen and the security police. Trained by the East Germans, the police were easy to spot in their blue uniforms and caps, handguns at their hips. “Everybody is scared of them,” one writer told me. “They’re so smart. I don’t understand it—they know everything. It seems like they even know what you’re thinking.”
When I asked people about Arenas, I was told, of his arrest in 1973, that he’d been imprisoned for paying a minor to engage in homosexual activity. (“He wasn’t arrested for writing against the Revolution,” one writer told me, “but for soliciting a minor. You would do the same in your country.”) Publicly, the people I talked to dismissed Arenas as suffering from mental problems: “I knew Reinaldo when he was here,” said one writer. “There was always something funny about him, like he was a little off in the head.”
But privately, he was greatly admired. On a street corner one evening, a writer told me he’d devoured Arenas’s Termina el desfile (The Parade Ends), a story about a young man’s disillusionment with the Revolution, on a deserted late-night bus run when a friend loaned it to him for two hours. “None of Cuba’s writers today,” another writer said, “comes close to Reinaldo.”
Arenas had told me in our interview a few years earlier that all of his writing was one long book, fragments of a single dreamlike, hallucinatory world: “I’ve never been interested in telling a story in a purely anecdotal or linear way. ‘Realist’ literature is, to me, the least realistic, because it eliminates what gives the human his reality, his mystery, his power of creation, of doubt, of dreaming, of thinking, of nightmare.”
In Havana, I understood something new about this power, how it could allow us to undertake—like medieval pilgrims who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem—our own road to Jerusalem, wherever we may be.
The days passed in the humid, windswept city. Havana came to life well before dawn, buses and trucks lurching along dark streets, diesel fumes wafting through windows left open to the tropical night. The sun beat down. It rained, silver sheets of water swaying in a wraithlike dance. Storms tossed the palms and whipped the sea into a frenzy. Great waves surged over the sea wall along the Malecon promenade extending five miles from the harbor. The freeing, imprisoning sea was everywhere: you could see it, taste it, feel it on your skin. What was it like to live surrounded by water? The state of suspension, of being adrift, of forever traveling and never arriving. Walking along the Malecon, I watched ships on the horizon: it took time to understand whether they were going out or coming in.
Only ninety miles away was Key West, the U.S.A. If you looked hard and long enough, it rose like a fata morgana, one of the mirages that appear over deserts and oceans, a mirror of something that lies beyond the horizon. Cubans tried to escape on inner tubes, on rafts made of wood and lashed-together oil drums, in homemade boats, and even, once, in a Chevy truck with a propeller attached. At the mercy of nature, of the ocean currents that would carry them to freedom or return them to their sorrows, some made it; others drowned or were caught.
“Those who are critical should have left Cuba when they had the chance,” people told me. (But there was a joke circulating in Havana: if a flotilla of boats sailed up to the Malecon to take people away, not even a cat would be left in the city.) Still, while defectors were called gusanos or “worms,” there was a certain compassion for them because they could never return to their homeland. The prospect of being dépaysé seemed to be enough to convince many to remain. Again and again, people told me they wouldn’t leave if they had the chance: their parents were getting old, they had a sick brother, they couldn’t live without their family and friends. They’d also heard the cautionary tales about people who’d made it to Miami, New York, Chicago, but were living in the margins, jobless and lonely. In Havana, people were in exile in their own country. There was un anhelo en los ojos, a yearning in people’s eyes—a readiness, a heaviness, a hope.
At night, Havana was dark because of Castro’s austerity measures. Walking around, I felt as if I’d wandered into a state of siege or a de Chirico dreamscape. But even though the city was often deserted, it felt crowded, like no one had ever left. The doorways and narrow streets were alive with shadowy figures and voices.
“Every person who lives outside his context is always a bit of a ghost,” Arenas told me that fall afternoon at Princeton, “because I am here, but at the same time I remember a person who walked those streets, who is there, and that same person is me. So sometimes I really don’t know if I am here or there.” At times, his longing to be in Cuba was greater than the necessity of being in New York. This was not, he felt, a personal calamity but a universal one, because the world was full of uprooted people. It was why, he believed, all the literature of the twentieth century was somewhat condemned to grapple with the theme of uprootedness. He felt “less bad” in New York than in other places like Miami, Puerto Rico, Spain, because in New York he could have both people and solitude. “In other places, you suffer the people or you suffer the solitude, and both are terrible. But New York allows you that equilibrium: you write, you mix with the multitudes, leave them, jump back in. Still, I don’t know where I can settle. I really don’t know.”
In those last days in his Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, Arenas wrote, “I have realized that an exile has no place anywhere, because there is no place, because the place where we started to dream, where we discovered the natural world around us, read our first book, loved for the first time, is always the world of our dreams.”
Ann Tashi Slater’s translation of Reinaldo Arenas’s “La vieja Rosa” was published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories. She is working on a novel based on the Tibetan side of her family and a travel memoir set in India.
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