For a long time I'd wanted to read Reinaldo Arenas's memoir Before Night Falls, which was made into a celebrated 2000 film starring Javier Bardem. I wasn't actually crazy about the movie- I fell asleep both times I tried to watch it- but I wanted to know Arenas's story better and this was the year I finally picked up a copy and read it.
I think these days with other forms of political and religious repression making headlines, the story of Cuba and Castro is easy to overlook. Reinaldo Arenas was a prominent writer and openly gay man whose life took a terrible turn after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959. Although at first he was sympathetic to Castro, that changed, and Arenas was jailed, chased and persecuted and saw his work banned. His literary reputation grew thanks to friends who published his work and supported him from abroad, but in the end he fled the country for the United States and lived the last years of his life in New York City. He committed suicide in 1990 after a long struggle with HIV and drugs.
His memoir is a book everyone should read.
There's just so much in here, about Arenas and Castro's Cuba, that I was fascinated to learn. He writes about the indoctrination camps he attended, the work he did for the regime and his growing disenchantment with it as he saw what Castro's rule was doing to his beloved country. He writes about the communities of dissidents whose ranks he joined, the time he spent in jail- which is absolutely harrowing in its unremitting violence and absurdity- and his seat-of-the-pants escape and dangerous journey out. One of my favorite passages talks about Castro's conflict with the Peruvian embassy, which was sheltering dissidents:
Around the beginning of April 1980, a driver on the number 32 bus route drove a bus full of passengers through the doors of the Peruvian embassy asking for political asylum. Strangely enough, all the passengers on the bus decided to ask for political asylum. Not one of them wanted to leave the embassy.This passage shows the combination of absurdity and black comedy along with tragedy that is in evidence throughout Arenas's book.
Fidel Castro demanded that all the people be returned, but the ambassador from Peru said that they were on Peruvian territory, and according to international law, they had the right to political asylum. Days later, during one of his fits of anger, Castro decided to withdraw the Cuban guards from the embassy, perhaps tyring in this way to pressure the ambassador to give in and force the people out of the embassy.
...When it became known that the Peruvian embassy was no longer guarded, thousands upon thousands of people, young and old, entered the embassy...The following day the embassy doors were closed again but there were 10,800 people inside and 100,000 more outside...From all over the country, trucks were arriving full of young people who wanted to get in...
There is also a great deal of sex in book and some reviewers have noted this and expressed some disbelief at the idea that Arenas is being truthful about the amount of sexual activity he claims to have engaged in. Here's what I think about that. First of all, memoir is a form of storytelling and sometimes memoirists sacrifice 100% truthfulness to tell their story the way they want to. It's also important to remember that Arenas was dying when he wrote this book, that the book was intended to reach Cubans in the U.S. and elsewhere, and that he had a great deal of very justified anger towards the Castro regime over the way that he, other gay people and Cubans of all stripes were persecuted. (And when I say "persecuted" I mean jailed, murdered, tortured, and had their lives ruined- not bullied in school or denied jobs somesuch more benign (but still terrible) forms of discrimination. ) Also keep in mind that Arenas's fiction is often fantastical, dream-like and surreal.
What that adds up to is this. I believe that while Arenas, who by all accounts probably had a pretty active sex life, uses sex to some degree as a metaphor for the life-spirit of the Cuban people, and that by portraying so much gay sex in Castro's Cuba, Arenas is jabbing his finger at Castro and his supporters and saying essentially, you can't keep us down, you can't deny our lives, you are liars and killers and you can't win.
Before Night Falls is one of the best and most powerful books I've read this or any year. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to know more about Cuba, about this particular writer or about the struggles that writers have faced all over the world throughout history. It's simply stunning.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.