Reinaldo Arenas (ah-RAY-nahs) was one of the most talented Cuban writers of his generation, the first generation educated totally within the revolution of 1959. He was turned into a pariah by Castroist homophobia and became one of the most outspoken critics of the revolution after he escaped Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He killed himself in 1990 after suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) for years.
Arenas grew up in an impoverished rural environment in eastern Cuba. As a teenager, he joined the revolution and subsequently received a scholarship to study accounting in Havana, but he soon abandoned this career for his literary ambitions. He worked in the National Library (in the Cuban Book Institute) and became an editor of the important literary magazine La Gaceta de Cuba. Arenas was removed from this job in the early 1970’s during the crackdown on Cuban intelligentsia (the “black decade”), was imprisoned for “social deviancy,” and spent time in a “rehabilitation” camp for gay people. After being released in 1976, he lived as an “unperson” in unspeakably inhumane conditions.
In 1963, Arenas won a contest in children’s literature; later, his novels Singing from the Well and Hallucinations and his short-story collection Con los ojos cerrados received first-mention awards in annual competitions in 1965, 1966, and 1968, respectively. However, only Singing from the Well was published in Cuba, after some delay, in 1967. The publication of Hallucinations in Cuba was banned because of some homoerotic scenes in the style of José Lezama Lima and because some parodic criticism of the Cuban revolution in the novel was quite obvious. The manuscripts of this novel and of the short stories had to be smuggled out; the French translation of Hallucinations, in 1968, and the Mexican edition, in 1969, gave the first international recognition to the writer who became ostracized at home. The stories in Con los ojos cerrados were published in Uruguay in 1972. Unwittingly, the repression at home helped to spread his work. Publishing abroad without permission was one of the criminal charges eventually brought against him. The Palace of the White Skunks was also published in French, in 1975, long before the Spanish original appeared in Venezuela, in 1980, and the international success of the novel probably shortened his prison term. Various versions of his explosive novel Farewell to the Sea, which expresses directly and bluntly the disillusionment with the first decade of the revolution, ended up in the hands of the Cuban secret police, and Arenas had to reconstruct the novel after his arrival to the United States.
In the United States, Arenas held important fellowships (Guggenheim and Wilson Center Fellowships) and visiting appointments at numerous universities and centers. The 1980’s were a time of feverish creative, editorial, and critical activity. He published the few manuscripts he was able to bring with him on the boat and revised a number of his older texts and reedited them under new titles (to establish the copyright he was deprived of by being a Cuban citizen). He combined former stories into novels (Old Rosa), wrote critical essays and experimental political theater, and expanded his practice of postmodern cannibalization of venerable classics. The Cuban national epic, Cirilo Villaverde’s nineteenth century work Cecilia Valdés, was turned into Graveyard of the Angels; George Orwell’s satire Animal Farm (1945) became a nightmarish reckoning with totalitarianism and with the mother-figure in The Assault. Arenas also completed his pentalogy dealing with the human experience in the crushing wheels of the revolution: The Color of Summer and The Assault close his semiautobiographic cycle of Singing from the Well, The Palace of the White Skunks, and Farewell to the Sea. His exile experience in New York inspired his satirical and fantastic-ecological novel The Doorman. Arenas worked to the last moment to complete his memoir, Before Night Falls, before his death. His manuscripts are held at Princeton University.
The early novels Singing from the Well and Hallucinations are generally considered Arenas’s greatest literary achievements. Singing from the Well re-creates his early childhood in the prerevolutionary Cuban province. Magical Realism and experimentation with language combine in this early postmodern text. The child’s voice and flights of imagination erasing any boundary between reality and fantasy produce a complex narrative game, at the same time immediate and sophisticated. The story forks, contradicts itself, turns in circles, restarts, and ends several times. The text plays with language and typographic forms. Play, parody, and poetry sublimate the world of poverty, hunger, violence, and repression. A number of Arenas’s other works, including his short stories and memoir, all try to recapture this unique source of his artistic inspiration. Hallucinations applies these principles to modern history, turning Mexican independence into a free allegory of modern revolution. Satire and a sense of the absurd are prominent.