Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reinaldo Arenas

I have chronicled my penchant for reading and as is reflected within this blog, I steadily acquire books through the Book Nook at the Crossings, the Colonie library, Goodwill and the Salvation Army in addition to an occasional lawn sale.  The hunt for new material is often as much fun for me as the actual reading.  Oftentimes, I have some inclination to make a purchase such as having previously heard of the work through the New York Times book review or some other source.  Other times, I gamble with fate and pick up something I had never heard of based on interest piqued by a read of the covers.  Such was the case with Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas.  This book had piqued my interest as an autobiography of an individual who was severely impacted by Fidel Castro.  For us around 50ish who were not directly impacted and not students of Cuban history, Cuba and Fidel are generally given little thought.  Sure there are murky memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban boat people, but it is hard for us to feel it and truly get it.

I’m sorry that this book sat on my shelf for so long before turning to it and unlike most other books that I quickly donate to the Colonie library I believe this book will be placed back on the shelf for a second read.  My second regret is that my words will not do justice to this masterpiece.    Let me begin by saying that Arenas’ writing surpassed my most optimistic expectations.  Before Night Falls, accomplished my initial goal of understanding what all the fuss regarding Castro was about.  Moreover, I was able to feel the heartbreak of Cuba and the tragedy of exchanging a not so good situation under Batista for an even worse situation under Castro.   A writer can tell you the story, but an artist can make you feel the story.  Reinaldo Arenas is an artist.  Here is an illustration from Arenas’ chapter titled, “Exile.”
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.
As I was getting into this book it occurred to me on more than one occasion that although Arenas clearly became disillusioned with Castro’s brand of communism I suspected that he may not fully embrace capitalism either.  This suspicion seemed to be affirmed when Arenas reflects that he made the following statement shortly after leaving Cuba:
The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream.  And I came here to scream.
Later in writing of his eviction from a New York City apartment, Arenas writes:
My new world was ruled not by political power but by another power, also sinister:  the power of money.  After having lived in this country for some years, I realize that it is a country without a soul:  everything revolves around money.
Perspective readers of Before Night Falls, should be aware that Arenas includes excerpts of explicit sexuality; yes, much homosexual some heterosexual and even a bit of bestiality as well.  I found this added to the veracity of the autobiography and was done extremely tastefully.  Not only will you understand and feel Cuban history you won’t fall asleep either; variety truly adds spice to life.  In Before Night Falls, you can feel both Arenas’ passion as well as his determination to tell his colorful story as he knew that his death was quickly creeping upon him.  Reinaldo Arenas - gone too soon; may he find the elusive freedom that he longed for in death.

As I previously stated, this book is a keeper.  Beyond this reading, I also anticipate that I may make the extra effort to obtain and read some of Arenas’ other works such as Singing from the Well, Farewell to the Sea and/or Palace of the White Skunks.  I have always believed that reading should broaden your world and these treasures are testimony to this belief.