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    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.
        -Reinaldo Arenas, shortly after arriving in Miami, 1980

While doing research on Reinaldo Arenas, one thing becomes quite clear : little Elian would still be in Miami if only it had occurred to his family to claim that he was gay.  That assessment may be overly flippant, but it is truly incredible to leaf through the dozens of reliably liberal publications that excused Castro's regime when the life and freedom of a little boy were at stake, but which profess themselves to be outraged at the way that Reinaldo Arenas and other homosexuals have been treated in Cuba.  Of course, there's also the delightful irony of all the conservative outlets and figures embracing this poor AIDs-ridden refugee as one of their own.  Politics sure does make for strange bedfellows.

Raised in the kind of poverty that has typified Cuba, Reinaldo Arenas joined the revolutionaries fighting Batista when he was just fourteen.  With Castro installed in power, Arenas was able to benefit from the government's mass education policies and attended the University of Havana.  His first novel was officially hailed but his second was banned.  A manuscript had to be smuggled out of the country and the book was published in France.  So began years of harassment which culminated in an arrest in 1973 on a charge of sexual assault.  An unsuccessful attempt to escape the island in an inner tube led to two years in the infamous El Moro prison.  Arenas was released when he agreed to renounce his own writings, specifically their "deviance."  And when the Mariel boat lift got underway in 1980, Arenas fled to the United States.  He continued to write and was politically active in the anti-Castro movement until he took his own life on December 7, 1990.  In a letter to the Miami newspaper Diario las Americas, he wrote :   "My message is not a message of failure but rather one of struggle and hope. Cuba will be free, I already am."

Though the specific source of his alienation from the Castro regime was sexual, Arenas did not limit his activism to issues of sexuality.  An open letter he wrote to Castro reflects broad humanitarian and democratic concerns :

    Mr. Fidel Castro Ruz
    President of the Republic of Cuba

    On January 1, 1989, you will have been in power for thirty years without having, so far, celebrated
    elections to determine if the Cuban people do wish you to continue as President of the Republic,
    President of the Council of Ministers, President of the Council of State and Commander-in-Chief of
    the Armed Forces.

    Following the recent example of Chile, where after fifteen years of dictatorship, the people were
    able to express their view freely on their country's political future, we request by this letter a
    plebiscite so that Cubans, by free and secret ballot, could assert simply with a yes or a no their
    agreement or rejection to your staying in power.

    In order to guarantee the impartiality of this plebiscite, it is essential that the following conditions
    be met:

        1. The naming of a neutral international commission to oversee the plebiscite.

        2. The freeing of all political prisoners and the suspension of laws that curtail the free expression
            of public opinion.

        3. That all exiles be allowed to return to Cuba and, together with other sectors of the opposition,
            permitted to campaign using all means of communication (press, radio, television, etc.).

        4. The legalization of human rights committees within Cuba.

    Should the no prevail, it would be incumbent upon you to respect the will of the majority by giving
    way to a period of democratic openness and promptly calling an election where the Cuban people
    could freely elect its leaders.

Regardless of the writer's sexuality, that is simply a powerful and compelling text.  His message transcends personal concerns and asks simply that Castro meet the bare minimum requirement of the modern Western state : consent of the governed.

Suffice it to say, I'd like very much to be able to unreservedly recommend this novel--the final installment in the author's "Pentagonia," his five part "secret history of Cuba"--but I'm afraid I don't.  Even considering the entirely worthwhile target, the dystopic fantasy is overly hysterical and scatological in tone and, besides taking on a Castroesque regime, the narrator pursues a quite demented vendetta against his own mother.  I suppose we can't be too surprised that Arenas seems to have had some psychosexual issues to work out with Mom, but they do clutter up an already fairly bizarre narrative, where the citizenry has become so dehumanized that they've begun to grow claws in a metamorphosis that inevitably brings Kafka to mind.  The best bits are derivative and the worst are so unique to Arenas's own tortured psyche that they're hard to relate to.

I admire Arenas for the courageous stance he took against Castro, and pity him his ultimate fate.  But this book just isn't particularly good, no matter how noble the intent.  Its chief interest is more cultural than literary, as an all too rare example of anti-Castro literature by a Latin American writer.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Latin American
Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : reinaldo arenas
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : arenas, reinaldo
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Color of Summer
    -TRIBUTE : Remembering Reinaldo (Octavio Roca, San Francisco Chronicle, December 26, 2000)
    -PROFILE : The defiant one : Gay writer Reinaldo Arenas was persecuted by Castro's homophobic regime. Now a film about his life has outraged Fidel's  followers. (Peter Tatchell, June 8, 2001, The Guardian)
    -PROFILE : REINALDO ARENAS (1943-1990)  (Prof. Francisco Soto (City University of New York) from The Gay & Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. Claude J. Summers)
    -PROFILE : Writing against the night : Before Night Falls celebrates a rebel Cuban writer (Gaby Wood, SA Mail & Guardian, July 2001)
    -PROFILE : The peasant revolts : Reinaldo Arenas was thrown in jail by Castro and later killed himself in New York.  Now an Oscar-nominated film celebrates the life of this controversial Cuban writer (Gaby Wood, June 3, 2001, The Observer)
    -ESSAY : America's Left and the Double Standard  Over Gays in Cuba (Agustin Blazquez with the collaboration of Jaums Sutton, March 2, 2001 , Neoliberalismo)
    -ESSAY : Life Under Castro (Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, 20 March 2001)
    -PAPERS : Reinaldo Arenas Papers :   A   Finding Aid  Prepared  by Rodolfo G. Aiello (Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University)
    -Reinaldo Arenas  (1943 - 1990) (QueerTheory.com)
    -The Knitting Circle: Literature : Biography, biopic, work, bibliography.  : Reinaldo Arenas
    -Reinaldo Arenas (Shergood Forest : Art, Literature, Entertainment & Sports for Gay Men)
    -ESSAY : The Sexual Politics of Reinaldo Arenas: Fact, Fiction, and the Real Record of the Cuban Revolution (Jon Hillson, Seeing Red.com)
    -ESSAY : THE CRUCIFIXION OF REINALDO ARENAS (MANUEL MENÉNDEZ)
    -Freedom Advocacy : Promoting freedom and human rights around the world, beginning with Cuba : Homosexuals
    -ESSAY : CUBA'S HERESY OF WORDS
    -ESSAY : Cuban libraries, intellectual freedom and the Oberg report (A Special Report / The Friends of Cuban Libraries. April 16, 2000)
    -REVIEW : of The Assault (James Sallis, The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of BEFORE NIGHT FALLS By Reinaldo Arenas. Translated by Dolores M. Koch (Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, NY times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (David Rosen, Editor-in-Chief, InsightOutBooks)
    -REVIEW : of THE COLOR OF SUMMER Or, The New Garden of Earthly Delights. By Reinaldo Arenas. Translated by Andrew Hurley (Lee Siegel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Color of Summer (Jaime Manrique. The Washington Post.)
    -REVIEW : of Color of Summer (PHILIP HERTER, St. Petersburg Times)
    -REVIEW : of  Eminent Maricones Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me. By Jaime Manrique (Daniel Mendelsohn, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Eminent Maricones (DANIEL REITZ, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Eminent Maricons (David Ross Gerling, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW : Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me. By Jaime Manrique (Leora Lev, South Atlantic Modern Language Assoc)
    -REVIEW : of Hispanisms and Homosexualities. Edited by Syllvia Molloy and Robert McKee Irwin (Leora Lev, Bridgewater State College)

FILMS :
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Reynaldo Arenas (Imdb.com)
    -INFO : Before Night Falls (2000) (Imdb)
    -FILM SITE : Before Night Falls
    -INTERVIEW : "Before Night Falls," Art and Politics with Julian Schnabel and Javier Bardem (Anthony Kaufman, December 2000, Indie Wire)
    -ARTICLE : Cuban poet film condemned :  Movie wins plaudits, but protesters say depiction of persecuted gay artist plays into hands of CIA  (Fiachra Gibbons,  May 7, 2001, The Guardian)
    -ARTICLE : Activists protest film about gay Cuban writer (Gregg Drinkwater, Gay.com / PlanetOut.com Network)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (Armond White, NY Press)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (James Bernardelli Reel Views)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Peter Preston, The Observer )
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls   (Kevin B. O'Reilly, Spin Tech)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Katrina Onstad, National Post)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Brett Sokol, Miami New Times)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Susan Stark, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (Lucas Hilderbrand, Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (Ed Morales. Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : (Steve Erickson, City Pages)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls (D A V I D   N G, Images Journal)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (Richard von Busack, MetroActive)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (Sara Brenneis, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (Shaun de Waal, SA Mail & Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls   (Pat Aufderheide, In These Times)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  (David Walsh, World Socialist Web Site)
    -REVIEW : of Before Night Falls  : Old Trash in New Buckets: Be Alert to "Before Night Falls" (Jon Hillson, NY Transfer)

ANDREW HURLEY :
    -REVIEW : of Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges translated by Amdrew Hurley (Complete Review)
    -ESSAY : Borges under Review:  Critical Responses to the Collected Fictions (Complete Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE RENUNCIATION By Edgardo Rodriguez Julia Translated From the Spanish By Andrew Hurley (Jim Polk, washington Post)
 

GENERAL :
    -CUBA : en obras de Carlos Ripoll
    -CubaNews (CubaNet)
    -ESSAY : Whorehouse of the Caribbean : Castro promised to clean up Cuba, but the new poverty has driven many to sell what they can, including their bodies. (Jonathan Lerner,  Jan. 4, 2001, Salon)
    -ARTICLE :  Miami Herald wins Pulitzer for coverage of Elián raid (MIMI WHITEFIELD, April 16, 2001, Miami Herald)

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