An Auteur Maudit
For many writers in Latin America, the political dimension that sits behind their fiction is a deliberate but finally relatively insignificant aspect of their work. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has long been associated with left-wing politics in Latin American and for admiring Fidel Castro. Borges more unfairly has been associated with the Junta while his abiding dislike was for Peronism rather than an admiration for the military. Gabriel Cabrera Infante was an enthusiastic supporter and active participant in the early period of the Cuban revolution but after a few years left the country to live in London. None of them was defined by the political. Equally, there have been numerous writers whose sex lives have been vital to their work, including, in the European context, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Catherine Millet. Then there are writers persecuted under a political system, and no one more famously than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, just as there have been writers persecuted because of their sexuality none better known than Oscar Wilde. But imagine a writer whose work is predicated on their sexuality, who is persecuted by a political regime, and who has the added misfortunate of finally escaping the country of persecution to find himself in a nation where a deadly virus impacts on the community. Reinaldo Arenas took his own life while dying of AIDS in 1990, following a decade in the US after finally managing to escape Cuba in 1980. While one can see in Arenas a figure who indicates the persecuted in numerous ways, in more ways than almost any other writer, he blamed the manifold persecutions on one man. In his suicide note, which concludes Before Night Falls, Arenas says, "there is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness and the disease contracted in exile would probably never had happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country." Arenas died at 47.
To blame one person for the misery of one's life, and indeed the misery of everybody else's, can seem like an enveloping paranoia; not so much everybody is out to get me, but one person is out to get everybody. The Castro that Arenas presents in Before Night Falls is omnipresent, but rather than the rebellious figure leftists td to invoke who showed over many years a refusal to succumb to the tyranny of the nearby US, Arenas presents a tyrannical figure worse than anything the Americans could have imposed upon them. By having Castro in power they avoided the military juntas of Brazil, Chile and Argentina but, according to Arenas, the situation was no better, and especially terrible for gays during the sixties and seventies yet hardly great for anyone except for Castro's favoured few. Many were hungry and semi-homeless, with Arenas describing in Before Night Falls the endless ingenuity of people in the face of systemic poverty. "The heat was oppressive and Blanca complained that her room did not even have a window. We immediately started to open a hole in the wall to make a window with what had once been a machete." They discover not the street on the other side but a convent. Abandoned by nuns since Castro came to power, Arenas and his friends steal what they need. Arenas himself takes a few things to make his tiny apartment more liveable. "I built a cedar loft in my room, installed a toilet and a marble kitchen, and completed my small living room with eighteenth-century furniture." God moves in mysterious ways indeed, and Arenas is hardly likely to thank the atheist Castro for that, even if the empty convent wouldn't have been so if not for the Cuban leader's anti-clerical policies. People are no less ingenious when it comes to getting food: "there was so much hunger that people frequently stole animals from the zoo to eat them."
Is Arenas exaggerating his case? Here is not the place to examine in detail Cuba during the sixties and seventies, though we can say there is a hyperbolic aspect to Arenas's work without claiming he made things up: it is unequivocal he was imprisoned, contacted HIV and took his own life. but within these undeniable facts there are numerous tales that aren't so much made up as made to measure: they serve very well Arenas's narrative of woe. Whether it happens to be his pre-Castro childhood or his post-Castro years in America, everything is desperate. It is almost as if his time in atrocious Cuban prisons was merely the worst-case scenario made vivid but that the worst case was always close to hand. "Reinaldo Arenas is a writer against all odds" Brad Epps says. "He is marked by poverty, imprisonment, forced labor, homelessness, flight, exile, AIDS, and suicide. His work itself is repeatedly lost, sequestered, and destroyed; much of it, toward the end, is rewritten from memory, hurriedly brought into print, and posthumously published." ('Proper Conduct: Reinaldo Arenas, Fidel Castro, and the Politics of Homosexuality') If a writer like Borges suffered under the Peronist regime as he moved from national librarian to chicken inspector, if Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned and forced into hard labour in Kazakhstan, and Oscar Wilde incarcerated in Reading jail for gross indecency, Arenas suffered the worst of all worlds: imprisoned, exiled and his work suppressed, how could he not blame it all on the man who could be directly linked to all three? How could he not blame Castro for his despair?
Yet the desperation is not a one-sided doleful account of misery; it also contains the desperations of desire and downright lust. In the early stages of Before Night Falls, dealing with Arenas's childhood, a constant sense of sexual need is evident even more than hunger, though as a very young child hunger was so apparent that to alleviate it Arenas literally ate dirt. " I was two...the first taste I remember is the taste of the earth. I used to eat dirt with my cousin Ducle Maria, who was also two. I was a skinny kid with a distended belly full of worms from eating so much dirt." Sexually, Arenas announces that " my first sexual encounter (though incomplete) with a person was not with any of those boys but with Dulce Maria, my cousin, the one who ate dirt like me." Before then it was with animals. "First there were the hens, then the goats and the sows, and after I had grown up some more, the mares." Arenas was very sexually experienced before getting round to screwing homo sapiens, and while one has no idea whether he is exaggerating his case, the reader can see in such details that Arenas' aberrant homosexuality, which Castro was so keen to stamp out, was merely the tip of the carnal iceberg. In Arenas's telling the Cuban leader would have been as well to ban livestock as homosexual encounters: people were going to get their pleasures where they could find them. It wasn't just Arenas who would take advantage of the mare: "all of us boys would get up on a rock to be at the right height for the animal, and we would savour that pleasure: it was a warm hole and, to us, without end."
Arenas was part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980: "In order to save face, Castro put forward the narrative that the Cubans who sought to leave the island were the dregs of society and counter-revolutionaries who needed to be purged because they could never prove productive to the nation," Julio Capo Jr, says. "This sentiment, along with reports that he had opened his jails and mental institutes as part of this boatlift, fuelled a mythology that the Marielitos were a criminal, violent, sexually deviant and altogether "undesirable" demographic. (Time) Castro exaggerated the number of 'deviants' all the better to give the impression that rather than many of Cuban's finest choosing a better life in the United States, he was emptying the trash. "While in the first wave, 1959-62, 200,000 Cubans came in an organized airlift. More than 90 percent were white middle-aged, well-educated people" Reginald Stuart notes. In 1980, "the large majority were blue-collar workers, less educated, mostly younger males." (New York Times) Arenas may have been by then a well-known international author who had published books in the United States and France but he was also a former felon with a sexual inclination that didn't lend itself well to the type the US was looking for when it came to wholesome family values.
Perhaps inevitably, Arenas never felt very welcome in the US and anybody wishing to use him as a stick to beat Cuban communism with would have to accept that Arenas's life was so unfortunate in so many ways that it was a stick which could be used rather indiscriminately. If life under Batista was so bad you would eat dirt, under Castro eating zoo animals could seem an improvement at least it was meat. "In Miami the obsession with making things work and being practical, with making lots of money, sometimes out of fear of starving, has replaced a sense of life and, above all, of pleasure, adventure and irreverence." (Before Night Falls) He was hardly in the States to ingratiate himself. "In one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had declared that "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." (Before Night Falls) While Solzhenitsyn could be utilised very well as a sober figure attacking the Soviet Union, Arenas was never quite the person to represent the oppressiveness of Cuba under communism. According to Laurie Vickroy, "for Arenas the situation and mission of the artist must be to resist appropriation and oppression; therefore, the authentic artist is a political rebel and social outcast." ('The Traumas of Unbelonging') Better then, perhaps, to see Arenas as an auteur maudit, a variation of Baudelaire's poet maudit for whom the writer was a cursed figure, "the poet as an outcast of modern society, despised by its rulers who fear his penetrating insights into their spiritual emptiness." (Encyclopedia Brittanica) Leaving Cuba doesn't simply release him from communism, it throws him into capitalism. "I already knew that the capitalist system was also sordid and money-hungry. (Before Night Falls)
It is as though the problem isn't that Castro's Cuba was oppressive (though it was), that it left people hungry (as Arenas insists it did), or that it persecuted gay man (Arenas is proof of that) but that the idealism which permeated Cuban society sought a perfection that Arenas was constitutionally always going to be unwilling to accept. If one is drawn to existential chaos, sexual promiscuity and not a little, self-destruction, a communist society would be the last place you would wish to be, with its insistence on a regular life with a regular salary and conventional family structure. Capitalism had many problems but it was pretty good at leaving the self-destructive to their own devices. Had Arenas played up more readily the dissident from Cuba, the politically astute lover of western democracy who couldn't have been more grateful that the US had taken him in, maybe he wouldn't have found himself in 1983 in some ways even more helpless in the US than he was at home. During that year the owner of the building in which Arenas was living decided to evict all the tenants; he wanted to do it up and charge higher rents. As Arenas explains various problems, he says, "rain and snow were coming into my room. It is difficult to wage war against the powerful, especially for someone who is not living in his own country, does not know the language, and is not familiar with legal terms...My new world was ruled not by political power but by another power, money." Who he detests most, it seems are those who support communism but don't have to live under it and needn't suffer the indignities of either communism or capitalism as he discovers "a variety of creature unknown in Cuba: the Communist deluxe." Amongst them he would include figures living in non-communist countries who nevertheless praised a regime that imprisoned him. These would include a "front man for Castro by the name of Eduardo Galeano" and also "Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the pastiche of Faulkner, personal friend of Castro's, and born opportunist." As for Carlos Fuentes: "He did not behave like a writer but like a computer; he had a precise and apparently lucid answer to any problem or question put to him; all you had to do was press a button." (Before Night Falls)
In such remarks we might wonder how reliable a narrator Arenas happens to be. Before Night Falls is undeniably the book for which Arenas is best known, but it is also a memoir that nevertheless reads like a work of fiction. This doesn't mean that the book is full of lies and falsehoods; to suggest it happens to be so would require a knowledge of Castro's Cuba during this period that one doesn't have, and many of the facts within the text are true to a general Cuban reality that makes clear this isn't the alternative world that a fictional writer can offer as creative licence becomes imaginative freedom. The point of Before Night Falls is the lack of that imaginative freedom which Arenas feels societally, and his demand for it individually. Yet there are many passages in the book that might ask us to suspend disbelief just as there are others that may have us looking up names that are either unfamiliar to the reader or at least little enough known for one to chase up their work and their biographies as they lack the emphatic international cultural status of Marquez or Fuentes. There are writers like Virgilio Pinera and Lezama Lima who were everything to Arenas that Garcia Marquez and Fuentes were not; there is too the painter Jorge Camacho, and his wife Margarita, who always kept in contact when he was in Cuba even as they exiled themselves in Spain. Then there is the ethnographer Lydia Cabrera who Arenas had enormous respect for when he arrives in the US and sees a woman who "had left behind all of her past, her huge country estate in Havana, her extensive library, and was now trying to make ends meet in a small Miami apartment." He also tells us that "...she is completely blind but still writing." (Before Night Falls) These are Arenas's heroes and heroines. Yet if we're inclined to question the factual truth of the work this wouldn't be to undermine Arenas but instead to aggrandise him: to indicate the book has the flow and shape of a very good narrative, one that at the same time constantly keeps in mind a strong thematic throughline concerning the pleasures of the flesh, the oppressiveness of environment and the freedom to write. The book has both a monological density and an anecdotal freedom, evident in the flow of the tome that moves from page to page with no large scale breaks which we find when a book utilises very clear separate chapters. But it is also within the singular flow that it offers mini-sections separated by a small block of a few absent lines as the next section opens with the initial words in bold and block capitals. It might be The Stones, The Earth, Fidel Castro, The Trip, Lizama Lima but they all narrate a chunk of information which engages us not only in Arena's life but in a story about it.
In The Earth, for example, Arenas shows how important the ground was to the community and the spiritual aspect to his family. When during a seance Reinaldo and his cousin throw some dirt against the wall, this is read as a message from the spirits. A recent feud over land distribution in the family could now be resolved since the thrown earth signified that the land should be fairly distributed. When babies were born the local midwife would cut the umbilical cord, rubbing dirt into it. "Many of the children died of infection, but no doubt those who survived had accepted the earth and were ready to bear almost any future calamity." The earth was also there awaiting the end of one's life. "The earth was there when we were born, in our games, in our work, and of course, at the moment of our death. The corpse, in a wooden box, would be returned directly to the earth." After the wood from the coffin rots, the body returns as a "tree, as a flower, or a plant that one day, perhaps, someone like my grandmother would smell and be able to divine its medicinal properties." This small chapter is magic realism in motion, but all of it is conveyed as true and there is nothing to suggest otherwise. Even the dirt rubbed into the umbilical cord is a tradition found in numerous cultures. Whether the aunt really did decide land issues based on that dirt thrown against the wall, or whether other issues more prominently came into play, we don't know but, for the coherent flow of the passage, as it moves from the spiritual to the earthly and back again, the children's gesture is important. In Fidel Castro, he yo-yos between the past and the future, narrating his first experience with Castro as if it was happening but also proleptically incorporating the future into the anecdote. Arenas says "it was an honour for us, lowly agricultural accountants, to be visited by the Commander in Chief" but we are also told that Arenas "later found out that he gave speeches almost daily, some of my friends suffered similar speeches..." Castro was trying to persuade comrades to go off and kill the unequivocal dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, only for many to try and do so, promptly getting killed in a further prolepsis. Arenas escaped with his life but gives us the deepest flashforward in the book: "Up to now I always managed to keep a few millimetres ahead of death; now things are different."
Arenas may or may not have been to the Dominican Republic; indeed there is some ambiguity in the passage. He definitely signed up for the expedition but it isn't clear whether or not he actually went whether he escaped with his life by finally not going, or going and was one of the very few who escaped. An investigative approach to Arenas's work might be able to separate fact from elaborate fiction but what is more interesting for the moment is to muse over what sort of personality Arenas wants to convey and what sort of sensibility he wants to suggest. One doesn't think of Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Borges or even Cortazar as accursed novelists but other writers from Latin America have played up the chaotic fortunes and misfortunes of their lives. Arenas, Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Bolano seem especially good examples of this tendency, whether obviously incorporating it into their work (as Arenas does), attenuating it slightly (as Bolano often would) or allowing it to permeate as narrative pessimism (as is often the case in Quiroga's stories). Here we can think not only of Arena's persecution that we have explored but also Bolano's piecemeal existence after being bullied at school, briefly imprisoned under Pinochet and for years struggling to survive as a writer before an early death at fifty that could have been prevented. He died while waiting for a liver transplant. Then there is Quiroga's ill-luck, which was monumental: his father was accidentally shot dead after a rifle went off during a family outing; a year later, his ill stepfather shot himself on purpose, and then when Quiroga was in his early twenties he shot dead one of his best friends in another unfortunate family incident. His wife killed herself with poison, and Quiroga took his life after being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Here were writers with the curse upon them.
Yet Arenas's curse is very closely affiliated with gratification, as though he was often willing to risk pain if a little pleasure might be involved. It is one thing to have the occasional surreptitious sexual activity in a country that had little tolerance for homosexuality, but by the time he was twenty-five Arenas claimed to have "had sex with five thousand men." Is this number believable, or one of the many facts in the book that asks us to call into question Arenas' story not because we insist he is telling lies but that he has offered himself a degree of license within the fiction? If we assume he got properly started at fifteen (putting aside cousins, farm animals and domestic pets), this amounts to more than a new person every day, and if even remotely true surely constitutes not just a pleasure pursued but a risk taken. In Cuba, this was doubly complicated. Not only did one have to worry about getting caught by the police or reported by a macho; there was a chance you might get beaten up by the very policemen, soldier or thug who has insistently screwed you. As Arenas makes clear, homosexuality in Cuba isn't defined by the intermingling of two male bodies, but based on who gives and who receives. Brad Epps notes, the receiver is "the maricon, very much more than the "active," insertive, masculine-acting bugarron is here the subject in question. The latter indeed is a figure who...is not, or not necessarily, labeled or stigmatized as homosexual, and who may even find his masculinity reinforced by penetrating other men." ('Proper Conduct: Reinaldo Arenas, Fidel Castro, and the Politics of Homosexuality') In such an attitude a person isn't implicated in the deed by buggering someone; their heterosexuality is augmented by the action, and the contempt for the maricon (or fairy) is exacerbated. There are numerous examples in Before Night Falls where sex is an adrenalised affair not just because of the satisfaction it offers but also due to the dangers involved. Speaking of one officer, Arenas says, "we tangled in a pretty memorable sexual battle. After he had had ejaculated and fucked me passionately, he dressed quietly, pulled out his Department of Public Order ID, and said, "Come with me. You are under arrest for being queer...perhaps he thought by being the active partner he had not done anything wrong." With another officer "he was aroused and so was I. When we found a convenient place he said, 'Kneel down touch me here,' and pointed to his belly." After Arenas tries to touch him he pulls out his gun, saying, "I'm going to kill you faggot." By frequently getting himself into sexual encounters in a milieu that wasn't gay, that wasn't specially coded in a manner that meant that by the very nature of the clandestine activity all gay men were complicit with each other, Arenas was generating manifold risk. Whether someone may beat you up, report you or threaten to shoot you, this was all part of the process of accumulating an astonishing number of lovers, and playing Russian Roulette with one's life.
Yet there is the suggestion that, for Arenas, danger was a frisson; that it gave to the gay encounter a calculability that could resemble, and yet was very different from, the heterosexual experience. Michel Foucault reckoned that wooing, dating and so on were never central to gay assignations. "Homosexuals were not allowed to elaborate a system of courtship because the cultural expression necessary for such an elaboration was denied them." Foucault notes that "the wink on the street, the split-second decision to get it on, the speed with which homosexual relations are consummated; all these are products of an interdiction." (Sexual Choice, Sexual Act) Yet it was as if Arenas found in such an extreme interdiction, in the prohibition of homosexuality in Cuba, a radical version of the heterosexual sense of probability. If as Foucault proposes that homosexual culture often focused on its most ardent and heated aspects, then the idea of the chase and the chance of rejection built into heterosexual flirtation was much less present in gay relations. Yet in a Cuban milieu in which homosexuality is so ambivalently presented, where you are only a 'faggot' if you are penetrated, and not if you are penetrating, then this gives to the imminent encounter a frisson indeed. Will the person reject you because he isn't interested in sex; will he do so because he is interested in sex but doesn't want to acknowledge it; will he have sex with you but immediately be so disgusted that he will beat you up or report you? The brave man who chats up a woman at the bar only to face rejection is a modest hero next to Arenas who would risk his liberty and even his life for an encounter with another man.
Before Night Falls is a work that suggests the life Arenas lived was a precarious one for various reasons: that he was gay man in a macho culture, a gay man in a communist society that saw homosexuality as contrary to the building of that society, and as person from an impoverished background who was never going to fit easily into any milieu where power and status were important. When he gets to the States he isn't too interested in taking advantage of the opportunities that arise, and instead appears much closer to those struggling to get by (like Cabrera) rather than those stuffily getting on (like Fuentes). It would be easy enough to describe Arenas as self-destructive but while this isn't untrue it might not be especially useful. It would be to ignore the sensualist and individualist aspect of a writer who always seemed close to the boy who thought nothing of having sex with whatever mother nature had to offer, evident not only in Before Night Falls, but an aspect of other works too, including the shorter fiction, like Bestial Among the Flowers, with its tangled interest in sexuality across generations and the way desire permeates the natural environment. "I heard my mother from somewhere behind me, screaming that unearthly scream that came from some prehistoric time before anybody was alive, and I saw her put her hands down on that unmentionable part of her body." If Arenas was interested in a return to nature this had little to do with it as a stabilising force; it is instead a chaos of impulses to match his own.
But above all else what he would have wished to return to near the end of his life was Cuba, but there Castro was, foursquare in the way, blocking people from accessing their own pasts just as the US was blockading American goods from entering the country. Yet there is a force stronger than nostalgia, however strong that may be. As a character says in 'End of a Story', "...my hatred is greater than my nostalgia, Much greater, much greater. And it keeps on growing." There is little sense that Arenas lived for a plan and if for no other reason than that the determined forward-thinking of a communist economy was never likely to appeal, but he did seem to believe in a community, and for all Castro's ideas about the people, the revolutionary leader separated them again and again, dividing people up between party believers and non-believers, homosexuals and heterosexuals and above all else between Cubans and exiles. Arenas could never become a useful dissident for an anti-communist cause partly because his hatred for Castro appeared almost too personal. "If it rages against Castro's Cuba and homophobia, it is not, for all that, at home in the United States and the Western gay community, where it remains, there too, curiously improper. Epps notes that Arenas's work challenges the neatness of oppositionality and victimization by pushing at their limits; it eschews easy recuperation in terms that are politically or ethically correct (or proper)... ('Proper Conduct: Reinaldo Arenas, Fidel Castro, and the Politics of Homosexuality') By taking Castro personally, Arenas doesn't become a writer of the oppressed as an oppressed writer, someone who continues that sense of oppression Stateside. In contrast, a figure like Solzhenitsyn may also have been imprisoned by a communist regime, but Stalin never became for the Russian writer a figure of personal hate; the purpose was to attack totalitarian systems, evident when the Russian says, "It is not only the Gulag which expresses the nature of violence which is inherent in the communist system. It is only its extreme form, it is only the extreme manifestation of violence. But there is a whole gradation of violence; so really your question should be turned round in this way: Is communist totalitarianism possible without violence? The answer is: no, not for one single day." ('Socialism Is Absolutely Opposed to Christianity')
Communism for Arenas very much carried a human face, and that face was Castro's, a man he always saw as antithetical to Arenas himself. Arenas always wanted not so much to be his own man, but his own maricon, living passionately among the senses and among his people, one that history rather than nature has intruded upon. Speaking of himself and others like him, he says, "we have suffered and endured successive degradations. The degradations of absolute poverty during the so-called period of the republic and under Fulgencio's Batista's tyranny; and the degradations brought by the need for American dollars under the current system." ('The Joyful Sixties in Latin American Literature') Left to the dictates of nature, however perverse, we may find Arenas's childhood would have allowed his being to blossom but instead he had to settle for the flowering of a literary talent than was in Castro's eyes weeds that needed deracinating. And so Arena was in time completed uprooted, finding a home in the US during the last decade of his life at a time when the sexual freedoms of the seventies were increasingly haunted by the sexual fears of the eighties, and which led to his suicide escaping the illness that was destroying his body and leaving him unable to write. Over his death, he held only one person accountable: "Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country." (Before Night Falls) For all the good Castro may have done from various points of view; there is at least one person whom he did no good at all.
© Tony McKibbin