Arenas, Reinaldo 1943–1990
Arenas, Reinaldo 1943–1990
PERSONAL: Born July 16, 1943, in Holguin, Cuba; immigrated to the United States, 1980; died of an apparent overdose of drugs and alcohol, December 7, 1990, in New York, NY; son of Antonio and Oneida (Fuentes) Arenas. Education: Attended Universidad de la Habana, 1966–68, and Columbia University.
CAREER: Writer. Jose Marti National Library, Havana, Cuba, researcher, 1963–68; Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute), Havana, Cuba, editor, 1967–68; La Gaceta de Cuba (official Cuban monthly literary magazine), Havana, Cuba, journalist and editor, 1968–74; imprisoned by the Castro government, c. 1974–76, served time in State Security Prison, 1974, El Murro (prison), Havana, Cuba, 1974, and Reparto Flores (rehabilitation camp), 1976; visiting professor of Cuban literature at International University of Florida, 1981, Center for Inter-American Relations, 1982, and Cornell University, 1985; guest lecturer at Princeton University, Georgetown University, Washington University (St. Louis, MO), Stockholms Universitet, Cornell University, and universities of Kansas, Miami, and Puerto Rico.
MEMBER: Center for Inter-American Relations.
AWARDS, HONORS: First mention in Cirilo Villaverde contest for best novel from the Cuban Writers' Union, 1965, for Celestino antes del alba; French Prix Medici, best foreign novel, 1969, for Celestino antes del alba; named best novelist published in France by Le Monde, 1969, for El mundo alucinante; fellow of the Cintas Foundation, 1980, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1982, and Wilson Center Foundation, 1988.
Celestino antes del alba (novel), Union de Escritores, 1967, translation by Andrew Hurley published as Singing from the Well, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
El mundo alucinante (novel), Diogenes, 1969, translation by Gordon Brotherston published as Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier, Harper (New York, NY), 1971, new translation by Andrew Hurley published as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando, Avon (New York, NY), 1987.
Con los ojos cerrados (short stories), Arca, 1972.
El palacio de las blanquisimas mofetas [France], 1975, translation by Andrew Hurley published as Palace of the White Skunks, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
La vieja rosa (novel), Libreria Cruz del Sur, 1980, translation by Andrew Hurley, Grove (New York, NY), 1989.
Termina el desfile (short stories), Seix Barral, 1981.
El Central (poetry), Seix Barral, 1981, translation by Anthony Kerrigan published as El Central: A Cuban Sugar Mill, Avon (New York, NY), 1984.
Otra vez el mar (novel), Argos, 1982, translation by Andrew Hurley published as Farewell to the Sea, Viking (New York, NY), 1986, reprinted in Spanish, Tusquets Editores (Barcelona, Spain), 2002.
Arturo, la estrella mas brillante, Montesinos, 1984, translation published by Grove (New York, NY), 1989.
Necesida de libertad (essays), Kosmos, 1985.
Persecucion: Cinco piezas de teatro experimental (plays), Ediciones, 1986.
La loma del angel (novel), translation by Alfred MacAdam published as Graveyard of the Angels, Avon (New York, NY), 1987.
El portero (novel), Presses de la Renaissencse, 1988, translation published as The Doorman, 1991.
El asalto (novel), 1990, translation by Andrew Hurley published as The Assault, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
El color del verano (novel), Ediciones Universal, 1991, translation by Andrew Hurley published as The Color of Summer; or, The New Garden of Earthly Delights, Viking (New York, NY), 2000.
Antes que anochezca (autobiography), 1992, translation by Dolores Koch published as Before Night Falls: A Memoir, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
Necesidad de libertad, Ediciones Universal (Miami, FL), 2001.
Inferno (complete poems), Editorial Lumen, Random House Mondadori (Barcelona, Spain), 2001.
Mona and Other Tales (short stories), selected and translated by Dolores M. Koch, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor of articles and short stories to numerous periodicals, including El Universal and Miami Herald. Editorial advisor to Mariel Magazine, Noticias de arte, Unveiling Cuba, Caribbean Review, and Linden Lane Magazine. Author's writings included in Caliente!: The Best Erotic Writing in Latin American Fiction, Penguin/Putnam, 2002. Works have been translated into various languages, including English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Turkish.
Author's papers are housed in the Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, at Princeton University.
ADAPTATIONS: Author's memoir Before Night Falls was adapted for film by Julian Schnabel, 2000.
SIDELIGHTS: Internationally acclaimed writer Reinaldo Arenas was one of more than 140,000 Cuban citizens who left their Latin American homeland for the United States in 1980 during a mass exodus known as the Mariel boat lift. Cuban president Fidel Castro exported to the Florida coast certain natives of Cuba, including common criminals, artists, members of the literati, and other perceived adversaries of the state, in an effort to squelch opposition to his Communist regime. In an interview with F.O. Geisbut for Encounter, Arenas explained that, as a writer and a homosexual, he was considered "an enemy of the revolution," guilty of a twofold crime against his country. The author was imprisoned by the Castro government, he further explained to Geisbut, for his alleged display of disrespect "for the rules of the official literature [and] of conventional morality." Arenas reached the U.S. mainland on May 5, 1980, with nothing but pajamas and a spare shirt. His manuscripts were confiscated by the Cuban government before he left the island.
As a teenager, Arenas had joined the resistance movement against the regime of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, then president of Cuba. The author explained in the Encounter interview that the Cuban people wanted to topple Batista's totalitarian government and thus fought "against the tyrant in power rather than for Fidel Castro," the young revolutionary leader who had led an unsuccessful revolt against the president in 1953. By 1959 Batista had fled Cuba, and, within two years, Castro established a Communist state there, replacing the previous Batista dictatorship with his own brand of totalitarianism.
It was in an atmosphere of fierce social and political scrutiny that Arenas composed his first novel, Celestino antes del alba, in the mid-1960s. Translated in 1987 as Singing from the Well, the book is an evocation of the fantastic visions experienced by a mentally impaired boy growing up in Cuba's rural poverty. Illegitimate and raised in the turbulent environment created by his cruel grandparents, the child has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality and imagines, among other things, that he can fly to the safety of the clouds when threatened by his axe-wielding grandfather. The boy finds consolation through his relationship with his cousin (or alter ego), a poet named Celestino who carves verses on trees. While several critics reported difficulty differentiating between dream sequences and periods of realism in the book, most regarded Singing from the Well as a novel of hope and an exceptional literary debut for Arenas. One Times Literary Supplement reviewer commented, "There is … a great deal of social significance in the child's pathetic longing for affection in so unsympathetic an environment." Commenting on his first novel in an interview with Ana Roca for Americas, Arenas referred to the story as "the revolt of a poet who wants to create in a completely violent medium."
Arenas's second novel, El mundo alucinante, also blends the fantastic with the real, this time in the form of a fictionalized biography. Translated in 1971 as Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier, the book chronicles the life of nineteenth-century Mexican monk and adventurer, Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, who suffered torture and persecution in his fight for Mexico's independence from Spain. Imprisoned for suggesting that Mexico was a Christian country prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Servando is sentenced to a lifelong quarantine in Spain. He manages an unbelievable series of escapes from his captors, only to fight in an ultimately doomed revolution. "Servando's real crime," theorized Alan Schwartz in Washington Post Book World, "is his refusal to be demoralized in a world completely jaded and dedicated to the exploitation of power and wealth."
Arenas defended Hallucinations against claims by several critics that the surrealistic rendering of Servando's exploits should have more closely approximated the monk's actual adventures. "True realism," the author told Roca, "is fantasy, the fantastic, the eclectic. It knows no bounds." Arenas further maintained that the depiction of Servando he envisioned could only be accomplished by weaving historical fact with fantasy: "My aim was to portray this compelling personality as a part of the American myth, the New World myth … part raving madman and part sublime, a hero, an adventurer, and a perennial exile." Schwartz felt that any flaws in Arenas's "ambitious technique" were "overshadowed by [the author's] madcap inventiveness, the acid satire, and the powerful writing."
The antirevolutionary implications of Hallucinations led to the banning of the book in Cuba by the Castro government. "What emerges [from the novel]," asserted a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, "is at least as much a disenchanted view of Man himself as of revolution in the abstract." Servando finds that the movement for Mexican independence meets with only token victory. By the end of the book, the ghosts of the old regime greet the new revolutionary leaders with a haunting, "We welcome you." Arenas implies that, as in Cuba, the new regime in Mexico will only perpetuate an unjust order. Yet in spite of the apparent bleakness of its vision, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer allowed, "The narrative … is an accomplished and bizarrely entertaining piece of work."
The manuscript of Arenas's 1982 novel, Otra vez el mar, translated as Farewell to the Sea, was twice confiscated by the Cuban authorities. After being arrested in 1974 for his supposed social deviancy, the author spent time in a reeducation camp; following unsuccessful attempts to reconstruct the novel's plot while in jail, Arenas finally rewrote the book for the third time soon after reaching the United States in 1980. In the Encounter interview, Arenas described Farewell to the Sea as a depiction of "the secret history of the Cuban people."
Set on a beach resort just outside of Havana, the novel describes Cuba's tumultuous political events and the impact those events had on the nation's citizenry. Hector and his unnamed wife reflect on their lives, hopes, and disappointments since the fall of the Batista government. The first portion of the book is a lengthy interior monologue in which the woman expresses her feelings of emptiness and her desire for, as well as distance from, her husband. Speaking of life under Castro as well as life in a passionless marriage, she muses, "The terrible becomes merely monotonous." Hector's thoughts are documented in the second section through a long sequence of dreamlike poetry revealing his outrage over Cuba's failed revolution and his own homosexual longings. After engaging in a sexual encounter with a boy from a nearby beach cottage, Hector hurls seething invectives at his young lover: "You will live your whole life pleading, begging pardon of the whole world for a crime you haven't committed, and doesn't even exist…. You will be the world's shame." Hector's verbal abuse leads to the boy's suicide.
While several critics were disappointed by what Michael Wood, writing in the New York Review of Books, termed an overly "obsessive and … prolix" anticommunist demeanor in the book, virtually every critic acknowledged the power and beauty of Arenas's words. In an article for Saturday Review, Anthony DeCurtis called Farewell to the Sea "a stunning literary tour-de-force." And Jay Cantor stated in the New York Times Book Review, "Mr. Arenas is not interested in ordinary realistic drama. He wants to give the reader the secret history of … emotions, the sustaining victories of pleasure and the small dishonesties that callous the soul."
El color del verano—translated as The Color of Summer; or, The New Garden of Earthly Delights—is the phantasmagorical story of a Caribbean dictator celebrating fifty years in power by resurrecting his dead enemies so that they may pay homage to him before he kills them again. When he resurrects a famous woman poet, she refuses to participate in the pro-government farce and makes a run for the Florida coast. Told by a huge cast of real and imaginary characters, each of whom has multiple names, The Color of Summer is a "verbal whirlpool, spinning out stories, prayers, lists, tongue twisters, letters, taxonomies, lectures, vignettes, aphorisms, dreams, confessions, diatribes, and farces," as Lee Siegel wrote in the New York Times Book Review. In Booklist, Brad Hooper explained that "this character-rich novel wraps its social and political criticism in an absurdly hilarious skin." In addition to being a biting attack on the Cuban regime's authoritarianism, its imprisonment of gays, and its suppression of liberty, the novel is also, as Sophia McLennan noted in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, a novel of "emotional intensity…. Fantastic humor is combined artfully with a profound sense of sadness, loss, and suffering." Jack Shreve of Library Journal called the book "magnificent," and "hilarious and savagely sarcastic." "The book is a pained affirmation of the uncanny pleasure of maintaining hope when all is profoundly hopeless," concluded Siegel.
Having emerged from a totalitarian milieu that he describes in Encounter as one holding that "there's nothing more dangerous than new ideas," Arenas garnered worldwide attention and praise as an eminent writer who—in the tradition of fantastic Latin American fiction—depicts the reality of life in contemporary Cuba. Commenting in the Toronto Globe and Mail on the effect of the author's writings, Alberto Manguel observed, "Reinaldo Arenas' Cuba is a dreamworld of repeatedly frustrated passions." The critic further theorized that the writer's works have turned Castro into a "literary creation," rendering the dictator "immortal" and "condemn[ing him] to repeat [his] sins for an eternity of readers."
Arenas once commented, "Being an isolated child growing up on a farm very far from people and civilization and under very poor conditions was an important motivating factor in my becoming a writer. In my books I try to communicate my happiness and my unhappiness, my solitude and my hope.
"Since the publication of my novel El mundo alucinante in Mexico in 1969, all of my writings have been prohibited in Cuba. In spite of Marxist censorship, however, I managed to keep on writing and was able to send four other novels out of Cuba. Though many of my works have been published all over the world and translated into French, English, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Turkish, I have not been able to receive any royalties, because Cuba does not have a copyright law." At the time of his death, Arenas had several works under contract for publication, including the novel Journey to Havana.
Despite his death in 1990, Arenas's works continue to be published. In 2002, Editorial Lumen of Spain published a complete collection of his poems titled Inferno. In addition, the Spanish publisher Tusquets has begun republishing all of the author's works, some of which have been out of print for years. A collection of fourteen stories and one essay by Arenas was also published in 2001 under the title Mona and Other Tales. The stories which are available in English for the first time, range from tales of Cuban landmark events, such as Castro's revolutionary takeover of Cuba, to stories about children who, as described by Juliet Sarkessian in the Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, "struggle to survive in a world that always disappoints their hopes." Ulrich Baer, writing in Library Journal, commented, "Several pieces burst with his enormously brave and productive defiance of any form of thought control, be it political repression or aesthetic convention." Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Mark Axelrod noted that Arenas's prose is distinguished by its "versatility" and concluded, "Even a cursory reading of Arenas would indicate that one is reading the work of someone totally in control of his material, whose prose, even in English, is as lyrical as he had planned and as subtle as he had envisioned."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Arenas, Reinaldo, El mundo alucinante (novel), Diogenes, 1969, translation by Gordon Brotherston published as Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier, Harper (New York, NY), 1971, new translation by Andrew Hurley published as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando, Avon (New York, NY), 1987.
Arenas, Reinaldo, Otra vez el mar (novel), Argos, 1982, translation by Andrew Hurley published as Farewell to the Sea, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
Arenas, Reinaldo, Arturo, la estrella mas brillante, Montesinos, 1984, translation published by Grove (New York, NY), 1989.
Bejar, Edurdo, La textualidad de Reinaldo Arenas, [Madrid, Spain], 1988.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 41, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Nazario, Felix Lugo, La alucinacion y los recursos literarios en las novelas de Reinaldo Arenas, Ediciones Universal Libreria & Dist., 1995.
Paulson, Michael G., The Youth and the Beach: A Comparative Study of Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) and Reinaldo Arenas's Otra vez el mar (Farewell to the Sea), Ediciones Universal (Miami, FL), 1993.
Rozencvaig, Perla, The Work of Reinaldo Arenas, [Mexico], 1986.
Soto, Francisco, Reinaldo Arenas: The Pentaonia, University Press of Florida, 1994.
Soto, Francisco, Reinaldo Arenas, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1998.
Americas, September, 1981; January-February, 1982.
Booklist, June 1, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of The Color of Summer; or, The New Garden of Earthly Delights, p. 1807.
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1986.
Chicago Tribune Book World, September 5, 1971.
Encounter, January, 1982, F.O. Geisbut, interview with Reinaldo Arenas.
Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, January-February, 2002, Juliet Sarkessian, review of Mona and Other Tales, p. 38.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 21, 1986.
Hispanic Review 53, autumn, 1985.
Library Journal, July, 2000, Jack Shreve, review of The Color of Summer, p. 136; June 1, 2001, Marcela Valdes, review of The Palace of the Whitest Skunk, p. S59; October 1, 2001, Ulrich Baer, review of Mona and Other Tales, p. 144.
Listener, April 22, 1971.
New York Review of Books, March 27, 1986, Michael Wood, review of Farewell to the Sea; March 7, 1991; November 18, 1993.
New York Times Book Review, August 29, 1971; November 24, 1985, Jay Cantor, review of Farewell to the Sea; January 20, 1991; October 24, 1993; October 15, 2000, Lee Siegel, "A Disappearing Novel."
Publishers Weekly, May 22, 2000, review of The Color of Summer, p. 72.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2001, Sophia McLennan, review of The Color of Summer, p. 186; summer, 2002, Mark Axelrod, review of Mona and Other Tales, p. 239.
San Francisco Review of Books, May-June, 1985.
Saturday Review, November-December, 1985, Anthony DeCurtis, review of Farewell to the Sea.
School Library Journal, April, 2002, Rafael Ocasio, review of Inferno, p. S48.
Times Literary Supplement, April 30, 1970; May 7, 1971; May 30, 1986, review of Singing from the Well.
Washington Post Book World, September 5, 1971, Alan Schwartz, review of Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier.