Thursday, January 24, 2013

REVIEW: Singing From the Well, by Reinaldo Arenas

Singing From the Well, by Reinaldo Arenas. Published 1988 by Penguin.

Singing From the Well is the first book in Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas's "secret history of Cuba," a series he called the Pentagonía. It's the story of a young boy growing up in rural Cuba, with his mother and brother and other relatives. I read it after reading his searing autobiography, Before Night Falls, and I intend to finish the series eventually. Singing from the Well, and most of Arenas's fiction from what I understand, is very different in style from his matter-of-fact autobiography. It's surreal, dream-like and fantastical; you can't quite tell what's real and what's not, what the character is imagining and what's actually happening. You get lost in the poetic beauty of the writing itself, the lyricism and music of it.

The book opens with a scene of the narrator's mother falling down the well:
There went my mother, she just went running out the door. She was screaming like a crazy woman that she was going to jump down the well. I see my mother at the bottom of the well. I see her floating in the greenish water choked with leaves. So I run for the yard, out to where the well is, that's fenced around with a wellhead of naked-boy saplings so rickety it's almost falling in.
I run up and peek over. But just like always- the only one down there is me. Me being reflected from way down there up to me above. Me- and I disappear if you so much as spit into the oozy green water.
So she didn't really fall down the well, she just threatened to, but that was enough to send her son off in a panic, to check, just in case. But the reader can see right away some of the themes that the book will explore- the terror of childhood, the beauty of the natural world, and the fear of annihilation. As the book continues we learn more about his world- his family and especially his cousin Celestino, a writer mocked by the rest of the family. But is Celestino real? Is he a figment of the narrator's imagination, or is he the narrator himself, older and wiser, looking in on his younger self:
Celestino came up to me and put his hand on my head. I was so sad. It was the first time anybody had ever cursed at me. I was so sad I started crying. Celestino lifted me up in the air, and he said to me, "What foolishness, but you might as well get used to it." I looked at Celestino, and I realized that he was crying too, but he was trying not to show it. So that made me realize that he stil hadn't got used to it either. I stopped crying a second. And the two of us went out into the yard. It was still daylight.
The book goes on in this vein, with the narrator's naive style and flights of fancy glancing over the horrors of his day to day life- the violence in his family, death, the violence of a country in transition. The family faces shame and mockery as word of Celestino's writing spreads; times are difficult and tension builds. I can't claim to understand everything that happened in the book, but reading it was a beautiful experience. I want to read it again and to continue with the series. The books aren't all that easy to find but I think it will be worth seeking them out.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.


Zibilee said...

Though this is not my usual fare ( I prefer books that deal in reality and not speculation) Your quotes and the way you describe this one make me want to look for this series. It sounds like a hard life, and I am always intrigued by the way that others can suffer such horrible abuses and still come out on top. You've made a great case for this one, Marie. It's been added to the wish list.

Care said...

OK, I'm intrigued. And I keep saying I want to read more books set outside the US. Will tbr.

Kathleen said...

Cuba has always been a bit of a cipher in my mind. There is so much we don't know or understand about the day to day lives of people there. I'd love to read this one.