Author: Reinaldo Arenas; translation by Dolores M. Koch.

1993, Viking Penguin

Filed Under: Literary, Biography, Nonfiction

When a friend of mine gave me an English translation of the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, Before Nights Falls, he insisted that the book was an effortless and riveting read–which was precisely the case. I finished reading the book as early as I could despite a couple of deadlines in my office and my one-year-old son going berserk.

The book is eminently readable and Arenas pins down the reader right from the word go. “The End.” This is how the book starts. He was sure in 1987 that he would die very soon but managed to survive although he had no medical insurance. He had to finish his Pentagonia and his memoirs before the night of death fell upon him.

Arenas’s father had abandoned his mother after only three months of marriage, something fairly common in Cuba in that era. He grew up in abject poverty, eating dirt and learning to hate his father. One day when he was six, he saw some boys of the neighborhood jumping in the river. The next day he masturbated for the first time. Life in the country was close to nature and therefore close to sexuality. Hens, goats, sows, mares, dogs, and even trees were used to satisfy his huge and eccentric sexual appetite during his boyhood. But the first time he went to a whore he was unable to have an erection. According to his own careful estimate, Arenas had fucked 5000 men by 1968.

Arenas tells us about Fulgencio Batista, who came to power in 1952, and how under him the Cuban economy deteriorated. His grandfather, whose testicles he admired, sold his farm and shifted to a small house. The features of Arenas’s writing which strike me the most are his wit, his sense of humor, and the self-deprecating irony.

BNF busts the myths associated with Fidel Castro’s “revolution.” Arenas had joined the rebels at the age of fourteen. In December of 1958, Batista left Cuba to the surprise of the rebels and even Castro. According to Arenas, Castro won the battle which was never fought. Soon after Castro took over, homosexuality was banned in Cuba. Arenas was sixteen at that time and had been given a scholarship by Castro’s government to study in a polytechnic institute which was, in fact, a communist indoctrination center. Interestingly, it was mandatory in the school to do a certain number of climbs of Sierra Maestra, the place where Castro hid until Batista had fled, in order to get qualified. Six to qualify as an agricultural accountant and twenty-five as a diplomat. One ruthless dictatorship had been replaced by another. Castro forced the young Cubans to work in sugar-cane fields with the aim of producing 10 million tons of sugar. No one was allowed to leave the fields and if someone left to meet family on the weekends, he would be awarded 20 or 30 years of imprisonment.

Arenas started writing in 1963 and his first short story was able to impress the jury of a competition held in his school. Soon after he was transferred to the National Library where was able to read and write. But the corruption and nepotism of Castro’s communist regime removed the honest founder-director of the library, Maria Teresa, and all the books on ‘ideological diversionism’ and on homosexuality disappeared. Although Arenas was not able to publish any novels he won quite a few literary awards thanks to the influence of one of his lovers, Rafael Arnes.

Arenas’s world is one that is subversively homosexual, at least this is how it appears from his narrative. Many Cuban poets and writers including Virgilio Pinera and Lezema Lima were also gay. These intellectuals were not only marginalized for their homosexuality but also for their integrity against succumbing to the communist regime. Castro’s government destroyed writers “in two ways: by persecuting them or by showering them with official favors.”

Arenas smuggled his novels out of Cuba with the help of foreign friends who had them translated and published in France. The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando was very successful in France and shared first prize as the best foreign novel with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez (whom he disliked for his association with Castro). In 1969, State Security started harassing him. They wanted to know how he was able to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba. He tried to defect through the US naval base in Guantanamo, but made a mistake of informing one of his friends about his adventure. His friend informed the police and he was arrested. He fled from the jail and tried to leave the country by swimming but again failed. Even his attempts to commit suicide failed. He was once again arrested from a park where he was busy reading Illiad. He was released in 1976 after confessing he was a counterrevolutionary and denouncing all his earlier works. That way he lost perhaps his greatest companion, his pride.

Arenas was finally able to leave Cuba in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift by tampering his name on his passport. (Remember the start of the 1983 movie Scarface?) He lived for some time in Florida and taught Cuban poetry in the International University of Florida. On 31 December, 1980, he moved to New York. He committed suicide ten years later. The publishers who had made millions out of his books refused to pay him a single penny.

BNF is all about being absolutely free and honest. Such samples of irreverence, iconoclasm, cynicism, and liberty are very rare.

Similar reads: Arenas’s Pentagonia is considered to be a secret history of Cuba after Castro’s revolution and includes five novels which have been translated into English. Singing from the Well, Palace of White Skunks, Farewell to the Sea, The Color of Summer, and The Assault.