The Assaultby Reinaldo Arenas
The author of the brilliant and highly acclaimed memoir, Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas concluded his sequence of five novels - at once a "secret history of Cuba" and a writer's autobiography - with an allegorical satire. In The Assault, he paints a harrowing, yet at times boldly entertaining, Kafkaesque picture of a dehumanized people and the despair of an… See more details below
The author of the brilliant and highly acclaimed memoir, Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas concluded his sequence of five novels - at once a "secret history of Cuba" and a writer's autobiography - with an allegorical satire. In The Assault, he paints a harrowing, yet at times boldly entertaining, Kafkaesque picture of a dehumanized people and the despair of an observer/narrator himself clinging to sanity. This profane narrative, filled with righteous rage, takes us on a surreal journey through a blackly humorous shadowland where philosophical discussion, homosexuality, and forgetting the words to heroic anthems are comparable crimes - and a cockroach hunt makes a national holiday. With echoes of Rabelais, Swift, Orwell, and the films of Lois Bunuel, The Assault crowns the work of one of the most visionary writers to have emerged from Castro's Cuba, a writer whom Octavio Paz called "remarkable... as much for his intellectual dignity as for his talent."
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In May of 1980, the Cuban dissident poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990) arrived in Key West, Florida, after a harrowing five-day sea voyage on a pleasure craft named the San Lázaro. Having thus completed his own Mariel “exodus” that should have taken no more than seven hours, he expected to be welcomed by the American intellectual community that had hailed his works, published abroad while he was still in Cuba. He did not realize how parsimoniously the title of dissident was meted out to foreign authors (who ever heard of a dissident American author?) by the U.S. intellectual community and its publishers. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, “dissident” was a term customarily restricted to certain, and only certain, Soviet and Eastern European authors, the qualifications for which have never been revealed by Washington insiders or the then budding media conglomerates. Latin American authors were not dissidents but “exiles.” Cuban exiles, Haitian exiles, Dominican exiles, Chilean exiles, Argentine exiles. Manuel Puig (Argentina) was not a dissident writer; Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia) was. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn (USSR); but not Manlio Argueta (El Salvador). And especially not Cubans, writers or otherwise—Gusanos (worms), escoria (dregs), agentes del CIA (CIA agents), perhaps. Reinaldo did not know that in America he would become, not a celebrity, but an invisible man; that he would vanish, disappear.
There is an old saying of the Cold War, first told me by Carlos Franqui, one of the early revolutionaries who joined Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra, to organize and direct Radio Rebelde: “In Communism and in Capitalism, they kick you in the ass,” he said. “But the difference is, under Communism, you have to smile and say, Thank you; whereas under Capitalism, at least you can scream.” Well, Reinaldo Arenas had come to scream…
In time, of course, Arenas would learn that when you scream without a microphone, nobody hears you, except maybe the next-door neighbor, who calls the landlord who calls the police, to have you evicted from your 43rd Street, rat-infested, New York City apartment. In the meantime, professors at famous American universities began expunging his novels from their syllabuses. Newspapers would select reviewers who had just come back from their latest two-week junket in Havana, all expenses paid by the Revolution, to learn how Utopia thrived in “the first free territory of the Americas.” While Reinaldo was living in a police-patrolled, rent-controlled Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the neighboring New York Times published a Sunday magazine cover story on “Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin American.” The theme of the piece was, of course, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, its pros and cons in the minds of the Latin American intelligentsia. Incorporating extended interviews with, among other authors, García Márquez of Colombia (pro-Fidel), Octavio Paz of Mexico (anti-Fidel), and Julio Cortázar of Argentina (frequent-flier on Cubana de Aviación, though his books never accompanied him), the most telling aspect of the entire piece was what was untold, naturally. Not a single Cuban intellectual, either inside or outside of Cuba, had been asked his opinion on the subject. Reinaldo wrote a letter of protest to the editor, which was never published. He did not exist.
In Germany, one of Arenas’s publishers sponsored a Latin American festival, to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1985, to which neither he, nor the Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (also in exile, and under contract to the same publisher) were invited. One of the editors of the publishing house was, yes, traveling back and forth to Cuba, learning about the Revolution. It seems that UNEAC (the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) had insisted it would only send its authors if no were invited. None were, but the promised shipment of genuine intellectual puros never showed up either. As Cabrera Infante would say, Holy Smoke!
Curiously, even the published versions of Reinaldo’s—and Guillermo’s—works became extremely difficult to find. Their Spanish publisher “couldn’t give them away.” Still, when bookstores ordered copies, they consistently received notices that the publisher was “temporarily out of stock.” Arenas had also been told by his French publisher, shortly after his escape from Cuba, that his translator (the most famous in all of France) was just too busy to translate his remaining works; a few years later Reinaldo received a disheartened letter from that same translator asking why, after so many years of faithful service, the author had no longer wanted him as his translator. Reinaldo screamed. Nobody heard…
How different it had been in Cuba. In 1965, a then twenty-two-year-old Reinaldo Arenas had won second prize for the manuscript of his first novel, Celestino Before Dawn, in an annual competition for best fiction sponsored by UNEAC in Havana. With a truly incantatory blend of the prosaic and the lyrical, a young boy “sings” the tale of his own awakenings, sexual and poetic, to the world about him through the irreverent promptings of his (imagined?) cousin Celestino. The novel would be published in 1967, selling out within a week, but would never be reissued inside of Cuba again. (It was eventually rewritten in exile as Singing from the Well. The first version is rumored to have been recently republished in Havana.)
In 1966, heralded as a young prodigy of the Revolution and acknowledged by such luminaries as the Cuban literary “giant,” José Lezama Lima, for the baroque pyrotechnics of his style, his wit and (more discreetly) his libido, Arenas improvidently entered the manuscript of a second novel in the next annual competition. Improvidently, because with Hallucinations he quite daringly recast the life of the historical Fray Servando into fiction, updating this Mexican pícaro’s exploits with salacious detail and political innuendo.
On December 12, 1794, the iconoclastical friar, Servando Teresa de Mier (1763–1827), renowned for the brilliance of his oratory, his wit, and his intellect, had delivered a heretical sermon at the Cathedral of Mexico City. The heresy was in suggesting, however obliquely, that the aboriginal Americans might have already been blessed with a good Christian “education” prior to the Spanish Conquest—by the Apostle Thomas, whom Servando believed to be revered by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent). Immediately, the incorrigible Servando was banished to Spain, tried, and imprisoned. The balance of his life was spent in jail or in flight, harassed by the Holy Inquisition, hounded by the Spanish authorities, escaping dungeons, wandering in exile. The infamous sermon had wreaked havoc on the course of his life, though fortunately it would provoke his final revenge: the writing of his fantastic memoirs.
His, too, had been an age of revolutions (1776, in America; 1789, in France) and conflicting fanatical fervors, throughout Europe and Latin America. The powers of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire had been foundering on both continents. There were many Inquisitions, not all of them religious. Eighteenth-Century Rationalism, in its quest for ideological Purities (whether atheistic or clerical, republican or monarchical), seemed bent upon cleansing the Body Politic of the Past, or of the Future.
Arenas’s astonishing fictionalization of Servando’s life in his Hallucinations did win him another “second” prize—but, this time, as something of an anomaly: there would be no first prize. Two jurors (one of them, the Cuban poet Vergilio Piñera) had voted in favor of his novel; two jurors (one of them, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier) had voted against it. The irony was that, despite his strong objections to the Arenas manuscript, Carpentier could find no substitute worthy of the prize. Yet, so great was the venerable novelist’s prestige (Had not Fidel appointed him cultural attaché to an embassy in Paris?), or perhaps his spite (Was he not the inventor of “marvelous reality” in fiction?), that with a simple wave of his magical-realist baton he liquidated the category: Hallucinations was awarded “first honorable mention.”
Never published in Cuba, it had to be smuggled abroad. Translations of the novel soon appeared, to critical acclaim, in half a dozen languages. In France, it was nominated for another prize—the Prix Médicis, for best foreign novel of the year (1969). Here was a brilliantly inventive, comic novel written by a Latin American Gorky, a Cuban peasant raised from the stark brutality of his impoverished childhood in rural Oriente Province, from an island once ruled by a capitalist dictator he had helped to overthrow, joining the rebels in the Sierra Maestra as a young teenager, a rural foundling whom now the Cuban revolution had generously lifted out of ignorance and, behold: turned into a writer!
Meanwhile, at home curious things began to happen to Reinaldo Arenas, the writer, who could no longer publish in Cuba. Like Fray Servando before him, he found himself caught in an age of wars and revolutions, militant fervors and fanatical conflicts of ever spiraling dimensions. For here was another man of letters from another splendid Age—that of Twentieth-century Progress—who had too late realized that the old Colonial Spanish interdiction against fiction (and Eros) in the New World, had yet to be lifted in his utopian Caribe paradise. “You and I are the same person,” he had prophetically warned Fray Servando, in a prefatory letter to Hallucinations—or warned himself.
In 1970, Arenas was sent by UNEAC as a military recruit to a rural sugar mill, where he was expected to make his contribution to Fidel Castro’s improbable goal of a ten-million-ton harvest by cutting cane and writing a book in praise of the experience. Instead, he composed the furiously inspired rebuttal to that inhuman experiment: El Central (A Cuban Sugar Mill), which was also smuggled out of the country. It was during this period that the idea of a pentagonía began also to mature in the author’s mind: five novels or “agonies,” each depicting the life of a poet, who would live, write, suffer, and die, only to be reborn in the following novel. Together they would comprise “the secret history of Cuba.” Arenas had nothing but contempt for “visible” history, as blind as “a file of more or less chronologically ordered manila folders.”
The first volume (Singing from the Well), the poet as inspired wild-child, had already been written and published as Celestino. The second volume, The Palace of the White Skunks, smuggled out in 1972, recounts the adolescent dreams of a sexually ambivalent Fortunato, raised in a house of frustrated aunts, a tyrannical mother, and two ferociously primal grandparents. When the family abandons the farm and moves to Holguín, where his furiously taciturn grandfather hopes to open a grocery to put some food on the table, Fortunato decides to join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, only to be captured while clumsily attempting to wrest a rifle from a Batista recruit, after which he is tortured and executed by government soldiers on the eve of the Revolution’s (January, 1959) triumph. Here, Arenas has created a haunting family portrait, combining the lyrical empathy of a Tennessee Williams toward his characters’ troubled lives with a radically fractured narrative that pays dark tribute, less to Faulkner than to the schizophrenia of life under any dictatorial extreme.
The third volume, Farewell to the Sea, is arguably Reinaldo’s finest novelistic achievement within the Pentagonía. It had to be written three times, the first in 1969, when it was destroyed by a friend who was supposed to be hiding it away, chapter by chapter, as Reinaldo wrote it. A second version was confiscated by the authorities in 1972; and the present version, smuggled out in 1974, while Reinaldo was in prison. It was published in a (purposefully?) mangled and truncated version in Spain, in 1982, which quickly went out of print. There eventually followed an incompetently translated and dreadfully edited version in France, in 1987, which languished for years in a prohibitively expensive edition. That same year saw an English edition of the work come out here in the States, in Andrew Hurley’s magisterial translation. Until quite recently, this was the only readable—or available—version of the work in any language.
The final draft of the novel inevitably reflected Arenas’s growing desperation, as a writer and as a homosexual. He had been arrested in the summer of 1973, on trumped up charges of “seducing minors.” The experience is related factually in his memoirs Before Night Falls, and comically fictionalized in The Color of Summer, the fourth volume of the Pentagonía. Suffice it to note that the two masculine minors, who had actually stolen Arenas’s underwater gear at the beach, turned out to be well-above age and recanted their testimony at the trial. A contemptuous judge still managed to find him guilty of counterrevolutionary activities, in part through Arenas’s UNEAC file (signed by, among other cultural commisars, the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén) which confirmed that he had smuggled unauthorized manuscripts out of the country. After a bizarre escape (rivaling even Fray Servando’s bravado) from the local prison near the beach, he was finally recaptured and sent to various prisons and forced-labor camps (for “re-educating” homosexuals), including the notorious El Morro prison, where his semi-fictional mentor had been imprisoned two centuries earlier.
Farewell to the Sea is set, like the previous novel, on the eve of an anticipated triumph that will produce unmitigated disaster: Fidel’s trumpeted goal, for 1970, of the ten-million ton harvest. The novel is completely divided, one might say severed, into two parts: the second part composed of six furious cantos, sung in silence to the ocean by Hector, a poet who no longer writes, or is no longer allowed to, away on a six-day vacation at the beach. He has endured the forced-labor of the cane fields as a “volunteer.” He has entered a sham-marriage (though the union is not devoid of genuine, sometimes heartbreaking affection), and even fathered a child, in order to avoid the charge of homosexuality. At the beach he has an affair with a young boy who on the sixth day mysteriously drowns. The first part of the novel is told in prose by Hector’s wife, who genuinely loves him but does not seem to be his intellectual or emotional equal. She often feels awkward with him; he rarely talks to her anymore, finds her mawkish and sentimental. She recognizes intuitively what he is, but is still hopelessly drawn to him, perhaps in part because of the very horror of the death-in-life that totalitarianism has imposed upon them both. And yet, in her silent musings—upon the ocean, the beach, the groves of trees, the flight of birds, and even the young boy who has seduced (is seduced by?) her husband—which fill the six days of their holiday, she reaches a level of lyricism unsurpassed by her broken husband. Each of them carries, sealed up in themselves, “a secret history” that, by the end of the novel, destroys their illusory existence.
Arenas had entered a similarly arranged marriage, in a vain attempt to ward off the sexual witch hunt that grew to a Stalinist frenzy in Havana of the late sixties and early seventies, until the grotesqueness of it finally outraged the intellectual fellow travelers of Europe and the Americas. It must be remembered that, in those days, even Manuel Puig’s now classic 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman was artistically frowned upon by his previous Latin American admirers to the extent that it placed in the same prison cell an aging, reactionary homosexual and a homophobic young marxist—just to see what might happen.
From the time Arenas finally settled in New York in 1981 until his death, he had one incredible stroke of publishing good-fortune. He found an editor, Kathryn Court, who, despite the prevailing intellectual climate, not to mention the financial prospects, short term or long, promised to publish the entire Pentagonía in English. This gave Reinaldo hope and carried him through the darkest hours of his struggle with AIDS. When he first tested positive for HIV, in 1987, he prayed to a photograph of “Saint” Virgilio Piñera he kept above his desk, asking him for another three years to be able to finish the remaining two volumes of his Pentagonía.
Saint Virgilio was listening. In the late 1980s, a barely legible version of the fifth volume, The Assault, turned up in New York and Reinaldo set to work deciphering and revising it. A dark parable of absurdist dystopia, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Arenas’s savagely comic tale is told by a torturer, a slavish, venomous agent from the Bureau of Counterwhispering. Indeed, his mind is so twisted by the nihilistic mechanics of a society that has been finally reduced to an indestructible system of destruction, he can only discover a kind of warped solace in the thought of somehow destroying his own mother. This ferocious quest for a kind of incestuously murderous exorcism takes him, and the reader, through every social layer of this hell. The chapter headings, borrowed from the chapter headings of a variety of other literary and esoteric works, including some of the author’s, serve to heighten the dissonance of the novel. This was to be the final apocalyptic vision of a revolution gone mad.
Now, Arenas had only the fourth volume to write: The Color of Summer. (Weakened by AIDS, he would be forced to dictate his autobiographical memoir, Before Night Falls.) The novel is a remarkable comic achievement, lending new meaning to the old adage: divide and conquer. For in this Carnivalesque celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution (actually the fortieth, but the dictator Fifo is ever prone to exaggeration), Arenas divides himself into three characters—Gabriel, the dutiful, “straight” son; Reinaldo, the famous, “persecuted” author; and Skunk in a Funk, the conniving, pícaro “faggot”—in order to take his pleasure, and his revenge, while writing and rewriting and, yes, rewriting a novel called The Color of Summer. The book gives the illusion of being a slapstick hodgepodge of high and low styles, of comical vignettes skewering friend and foe alike, mixed with tongue twisters, letters, anecdotes, lists, a play at the beginning and an author’s “Forward” seemingly stuck at random in the middle. By the end, the island has been gnawed away from its rocky base and floats off into the Gulf Stream until it finally sinks.
This deceptively casual structure was born of necessity: Arenas did not know exactly how long he had to live. So each little vignette is in fact quite carefully structured as a complete entity unto itself, just in case it might suddenly be the last. And the novel was fitted together additively, so that not only the island may be atomized at any moment; so may the book. As Reinaldo suggests in his “Foreword,” he is offering his reader, literally, a comically “cyclonic” or “round” novel, which “…never really begins or ends at any particular place; readers can begin it anywhere and read it until they come back to their starting point.…But please don’t take that as either a merit or a defect—just a necessity that is intrinsic to the structure of the work.” It is a work of astonishing playfulness and equanimity for an author already ravaged by what he considered to be the first inhuman plague and, most likely, invented by modern science.
On December 7, 1990, Reinaldo Arenas committed suicide in his New York apartment. No longer capable of managing the stairs to his sixth-floor walk-up, terrified of being sent to a public hospital (the previous year, a private hospital had “released” him in the middle of the night—no insurance—with pneumonia), unable to swallow solid foods, he told me: “I’ve lost my country and my language, the meaning of anything I ever wanted to say. Thanks to Virgilio, I’ve managed to finish my books. There’s nothing left.” He was forty-seven.
Two years after his death, Reinaldo’s memoir Before Night Falls, was published to unprecedented acclaim in France and in Spain, where Vargas Llosa hailed it as “One of the most shattering testimonials ever written…on the subject of oppression and defiance.” An American edition soon followed, in a haunting English version by Arenas’s friend Dolores Koch, which The New York Times’s critics selected as one of the Best Books of 1993. Arenas had become one of the greatest dissident authors not just of Cuba, but of the Cold War. Though he hated Castro’s Cuba, he could be just as scathing about Batista’s. A passionate anti-communist, he showed little love for American intellectuals, “who think about nothing but the state of their bank accounts.” He described Miami as “a town that I do not wish to remember.” He found New York sex a mechanical and dirty transaction, and the brutish pedestrians, obsessed with little more than scurrying home to their television sets.
And yet, my friend, this is the only place in the world
where one can survive—I say that
with all my heart,
because I say it without illusions.
He wrote this in a letter to himself, or rather Gabriel did, in The Color of Summer.
Not many dissident authors have survived the Cold War. Some of course were destroyed by it, never returning from the various concentration camps that have dotted the maps and graveyards of the twentieth century. Others became as irrelevant as the posturing of opposing forces that have settled back, winners or losers, into the wholly calculated pursuit of strictly capital ambitions. Their books, discarded by publishers and libraries, could still be picked up for a time, in those last few years of the millennium, at used bookstores or the second-hand peddlers’ tables often seen on parts of upper Broadway or lower Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan.
Does a dissident author ever survive the hour of his dissidence? In rereading the Pentagonía to write this essay, I found a different writer than the one I had experienced in the past. When I first read Reinaldo Arenas, as he was editing and rewriting his works, I had been overwhelmed by the discordant power of his dazzling invective. Now, some ten years after his death, I am continually astonished at the pathos and beauty of his creations. I sense that I am in the hands of a writer of enormous confidence, empathy and resilience. I realize, for example, that I have never read another novelist who writes so lyrically or intimately about the sea—not about life at sea, like Melville or Conrad, but about the sea itself. Throughout his works, Arenas has scattered one invocation after another, in every conceivable condition of light, hour, and weather, summoning the always shifting colors and textures, the ceaseless change and endless repetition of his vast, beloved sea. I understand now why it finally took a painter, Julia Schnabel, to make a film worthy of him, with Before Night Falls. For Arenas himself was a luminous painter of the human soul; and, to the very end, used his gifts to uncover the poetry of a dark and darker world.
Thomas Colchie March, 2001
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