The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas "is a book above all about being free," said The New York Review of Books--sexually, politically, artistically. Arenas recounts a stunning odyssey from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his supression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In what The Miami Herald calls his "deathbed ode to eroticism," Arenas breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime. Recorded in simple, straightforward prose, this is the true story of the Kafkaesque life and world re-created in the author's acclaimed novels.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.06(w) x 7.74(h) x 0.57(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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THE STONES I was two. I was standing there, naked. I bent down and licked the earth. The first taste I remember is the taste of the earth. I used to eat dirt with my cousin Dulce María, who was also two. I was a skinny kid with a distended belly full of worms from eating so much dirt. We ate dirt in the shed. The shed was the place next to the house where the animals slept, that is, the horses, the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the sheep.
Someone reprimanded us for eating dirt. Who was it? My mother? My grandmother? One of my aunts? Or maybe it was my grandfather? One day I had a terrible bellyache. I did not even have time to get to the outhouse, and I used the chamber pot that was under the bed I shared with my mother. The first thing that came out was a huge worm, a red creature with many legs like a centipede. It was jumping up and down in the pot, no doubt enraged at having been expelled from its home in such a violent way. I was deathly afraid of this worm, which now appeared in my dreams every night trying to get into my belly while I embraced my mother.
My mother was a very beautiful, very lonely woman. She had known only one man, my father, and had enjoyed love for only a few months. My father was an adventurer. He fell in love with my mother, became formally engaged to her by asking my grandfather for her hand, and three months later left her. My mother first lived with her prospective parents-in-law. There she waited for a year, but my father never returned. When I was three months old my mother returned to my grandparents' home with me, the proof of her failure. I do not remember where I was born and I never met my father's family, but I think it was in the country, in the northern part of Oriente province. My grandmother and everyone else at home always tried to instill in me a great hatred toward my father because he had deceived (that was the word) my mother. I remember they taught me a song about a son who kills his father to avenge his abandoned mother. I would sing that song to the whole family, who listened, enraptured. The song, which was very popular in those days, relates the sufferings of a woman whose lover seduced her and vanished after getting her pregnant. The song ended as follows:
The boy grew up and became a man,
and to the wars he went to fight.
In vengeance he killed his father:
The sons who love will do what's right.
One day my mother and I were on our way to visit one of my aunts. As we walked down to the river, a man came toward us; he was good-looking, tall and dark. My mother fell into a sudden rage; she began picking up stones from the riverbank and throwing them at his head, while the man, in spite of the shower of rocks, kept coming toward us. When he was close to me, he put his hand into his pocket, pulled out two pesos, and gave them to me. He then patted me on the head and ran away to avoid being hit by one of the stones. My mother cried all the way to my aunt's house, where I found out that the man was my father. I never saw him again, nor the two pesos; my aunt asked my mother to lend them to her and I do not know if she ever paid them back.
My mother was a "fallen" woman, as they used to say. It would have been difficult for her to find another husband; marriage was for virgins and she had been seduced. If any man approached her it was, as common wisdom had it in those days, to "take advantage of her." My mother, therefore, had to be very mistrustful. We went to dances together; she always took me along, although I was then only about four years old. If a man asked her to dance, I would wait on a bench; once the dance was over my mother would come and sit next to me again. If someone invited her to have a beer, she dragged me along; I did not drink beer, but my mother's suitor had to buy me many rallados, which is what we in the country called ice grated with a plane and flavored with colored fruit syrup. Perhaps my mother thought that at one of those dances she would find a dependable man who might marry her. She did not find him, or did not want to. I think my mother was always faithful to my father's infidelityand chose chastity; a bitter chastity, unnatural and cruel, because she was then only twenty years old. My mother's chastity was worse than that of a virgin, because she had known the pleasures of love for a few months and then gave all of it up for the rest of her life. This created in her a great sense of frustration.
One night, when I was already in bed, my mother asked me a question that at the time disturbed me greatly. She wanted to know if I would feel really sad if she died. I hugged her and started to cry. I think she cried too, and told me to forget she had ever asked. I realized later, or perhaps even then, that my mother was contemplating suicide but had refrained because of me.
I was still an ugly boy, potbellied and with a very big head. I think that my mother did not have enough practical sense to be raising a child. She was young, had no experience, and was living in my grandmother's home. It was my grandmother who was in charge of the household; in her own words, she was "the captain in command." My mother was single and with a child, a sort of freeloader. She was not in a position to make any decisions, not even about me. I do not know whether my mother loved me then; I remember that if I cried she would pick me up, but always so violently that I would slide back down over her shoulders and hit the floor head-on. At other times, she would rock me in a hammock made from a flour sack, but she rocked me so hard that I would fall out. I think that was why my head was full of scabs and bumps. But I survived. As luck would have it, our house was a large, typical Cuban bohío, a hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor.
That house was full of women. There were unmarried aunts as young as my mother, and others already considered old maids because they were over thirty. There was also a daughter-in-law, abandoned by one of my grandparents' sons, who was Dulce María's mother. The married aunts would also come and stay for long periods of time. They came with their children, who were older than I was, and I would envy them because they knew their fathers and this gave them a self-assured and confident manner that I never had. Most of these relatives lived close to my grandfather's home. Sometimes they just came for a visit and my grandmother would make a special dessert and turn the whole thing into a party. My great-grandmother also lived in the house; she was very old and could hardly move. Most of the time she sat on a stool near a crystal radio receiver that she would never listen to.
The heart of the house was my grandmother. She peed standing up, and spoke with God. She always called God and the Virgin Mary to account for all the misfortunes that threatened us or that had befallen us: the droughts, the thunderbolt that had scorched a palm tree or killed a horse, the cows that died of an incurable disease, and my grandfather's drinking sprees, after which he would come home and beat her up. My grandmother then had eleven unmarried daughters and three married sons. In time, the unmarried daughters would find temporary husbands who would take them away and, as with my mother, a few months later abandon them. They were attractive women who for some fatal reason could not hold any man. My grandparents' home was full of their very pregnant daughters or crying kids like me. The world of my childhood was filled with abandoned women; the only man in that house was my grandfather. My grandfather had been a Don Juan, but now he was a bald, old man. He did not talk with God as my grandmother did; he talked to himself. Sometimes he would look up to the heavens and swear. He had fathered several children with other women of the neighborhood, who in time also came to live in my grandmother's house. At that point, my grandmother decided not to sleep with my grandfather again, and so she also was celibate and as frustrated as her daughters.
My grandfather had his bouts of rage too; he would stop talking altogether, leave home and go into the woods, sleeping under the trees for weeks. He said he was an atheist, but he spent a lot of energy cursing the Mother of God. Perhaps he did all this to irritate my grandmother, who would always devotedly fall down on her knees, even in the middle of the fields, to ask the heavens for something or other, which, in general, she did not get.
THE GROVE I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people who were indifferent toward me. My existence was not even justified, nobody cared. This gave me an incredible opportunity to escape it all without anyone worrying about where I was or when I would return. I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in its completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below, with the clamor of my aunts, the cursing of my grandfather, or the cackling of the hens.... Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique
Excerpted from BEFORE NIGHT FALLS by REINALDO ARENAS. Copyright © 2000 by Fine Line Features.
Translation copyright © 1993 Estate of Reinaldo Arenas and Dolores M. Koch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of ContentsBefore Night Falls - Reinaldo Arenas Introduction: The End
The Temple of the Spirits
The Morning Fog
The Night, My Grandmother
The Rub Pub
Theatrics and the Chicken Farm
Good-bye to the Chicken Farm
The Cuban Book Institute
The Four Categories of Gays
Jorge and Margarita
Santa Marcia [Saint Queer]
The Abreu Brothers
The Sugar Mill
The Padilla "Case"
A Trip to Holguíin
Again at El Morro
An "Open" Jail
Out on the Street
The Monserrate Hotel
Good-Bye to Virgilio
What People are Saying About This
One of the most shattering testimonials ever written…on the subject of oppression and defiance.
(Mario Vargas Llosa)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reinaldo Arenas wants nothing more than to enjoy the splendid men of Cuba, write and read the works of his fellow authors. Unfortunately, he becomes a man during the rise of Castro and falls victim to persecution as a homosexual and writer. This is Arenas' autobiography of his harrowing imprisonment and eventual escape as a Marielito to the U.S. The description of gay life are graphic and the account of his imprisonment is horrifying. Arenas is an accomplished writer whose style is simple yet vivid and poetic. I would recommend this to anyone interested in a first-hand account of life in Castro's Cuba and I look forward to reading one of his many fictional works which have never been published in Cuba.
More than two decades ago I read a devastating memoir, 'Against all Hope' by Armando Valladares, that depicted the brutality of Castro's Cuba from the view of a prison cell. Now I have encountered a comparable memoir in 'Before Night Falls'. His memoir, just as shocking as that by Valladares, is above all a book about being free -- as an artist, a citizen, and a human. Recounting his journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba (undoubtedly a more severe life than poverty in America due to the lack of infrastructure in Cuba) Arenas narrates his life over four decades until his death in New York. His farewell letter at the end of the memoir is as touching as anything I have ever read. He lead a life filled with action for the defense of individual freedom of humanity in his home of Cuba; but he also lived a life that was Kafkaesque with episodes of imprisonment and suppresion of his writing by Castro's Cuba. It is a story that reminds me more of the Inferno of Dante (which I recently read) than life on earth, even recognizing that we do not live in a paradise. Arenas' memoir is a great work of art, but also a tribute to the spirit of man.
I only managed to read a few pages of this book. The problem for me here was that it seemed to gallop at speed but without much detail or thoughtfulness through the events of his life - this happened, then that happened. I find this approach frustrating because it doesn't give your brain very much to grasp on - nothing is given any more significance than anything else.I also read the other reviews here, and nothing in them convinced me to read any further.
March 13, 2009: This book is riveting, spellbinding, exiting, honest and heart breaking. Arenas tells a story of strength, endurance and perseverance under such brutal communist conditions during another time and place. The book is inspiring and I recommend it to anyone interested in history.
Despite coming from a poor rural background, Reinaldo Arenas [1943-1990] was successful in having studied at Universidad de La Habana and later worked in the prestigious Biblioteca Nacional [National Library]. At bitter, even dangerous odds with the Revolutionary regime in Cuba both politically and on account of his open homosexuality, Arenas was expelled from Cuba in 1980 [during the Muriel Exodus] and lived in New York City, with AIDS, until his suicide in 1990. Shamefully underrated in this country, Arenas published more than a dozen remarkable works, many of which are now available in English translation. Arenas's highly acclaimed autobiography, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, adapted to the large screen with the brilliant Spanish actor Javier Bardem in the title role, is a work that has all the resonance of true art and thus transcends the particularities of the artist's sexual orientation. What we have instead is a painfully honest portrait of intimacy and the insights its gives the reader are into the universal human condition. Arenas has the stunning ability [as seen in his fictional novel FAREWELL TO THE SEA, 1982] to reach out for the deepest frequencies of the heart, for those elusive qualities of the spirit... if you will. Arenas is exhilarated by life's realities and is excited by merely being alive. A large measure of that exhilaration, I'm convinced from a careful reading of his short stories and poetry, emanates from the thinking life, the life of reveries and of intimate reflection. As much drama takes place in the writer's mind as in his external life. Thinking and reflecting are keenly stimulating for this extraordinarily beleaguered artist. This autobiography is shocking and agonizing, but also vibrant and insightful, jubilant and witty ... and perhaps most reflective of the writer's multiplicity of moods, consistently rebellious to the core. Arenas's language is poetically eloquent. His is an art structured from and upon his own honesty and his unusual experiences ... not from clever word play or verbal pyrotechnics. Arenas deals in reality-facing and he addresses this reality with a special rhetoric of a kind of spiritual sensibility and a unique voice [rather bold for Latin American literature], thus transforming the real into a vision of what's true and honest, what's possible, what's beautiful. But of course, he committed suicide to end it, didn't he? In every sense of the term, Arenas's expressed passions are a humanist's vision that is earned and authenticated in his writing, one that all readers can feel and experience. I agree with reviewer Grady Harp, himself an outstanding poet, when he stated some time ago that Arenas wrote with a depth of 'truth and observation that exudes Magical Realism.' It was L. Frank Baum [THE WIZARD OF OZ] who remarked, 'There ARE strange creatures in this forest. But are they ALL wild?' Arenas is highly recommended reading! Alan Cambeira author of Azucar's Sweet Hope...Her Story Continues.
One of my favorite books. Arenas' life is inspiring to say the least. A must read for any semi-intelligent person.
I was physically incapable of putting this book down once I had started it. It's an amazing, lyrical tale of childhood, adulthood and persecution in Castro's Cuba. The most tragic part of the book is, of course, that it's a true story.
It is rare that I do not finish reading a book that I purchase, but I have been struggling to make it to the half-way point of Before Night Falls. I did find the earlier passages of Arenas childhood to be very powerful. However, I feel that I have been wading through endless pages of sexual conquests. Although I am aware that this was a large part of Arenas life, it overshadows many of the other facets of his life, and the politics of the world he was living in.
Arenas really blew me away with this one. The prison scenes were truly heart wrenching. That he survived that mess only to succomb to AIDS sucked. His whole life a struggle. A shining example of the resolve of a human being. I loved it.
Arenas represents the life of a group of people that, to this day, is suffering from such atrocities. The seeming Romanticism of this gripping story is, in every sense, Realism, clearly a result of Arena's passion for art and life. The tension such elements create--- intense hunger for beauty and life at the hands of death and suffering--- makes this book a painfully difficult piece to let go of or accept. Written in a conversational manner that so clearly evokes pictures of Cuba, Arenas succeeds in bringing everyone to the tiny island...even if you have never or will never visit. Just like 'Before Night Falls' provides a beautiful but sobering trip into Castro's Cuba for us on the outside, I only wonder if 'The Doorman' provides those in Cuba with an account of life in the US.
What a remarkable story! At times. I caught myself doubting the reality of Reinaldo's life. I never imagined the opression and suffering the people of Cuba underwent under Castro's regime; it was very enlightening and at many times, quite shocking. I was also moved by the author's determination to break from the mold of Castro's burdensome campaign and into a land of freedom. Not just America, but a personal sense of freedom; this struggle is felt in his tone as he writes. I really admired his honesty and the beautiful manner in which he brings the most simple of things to life. A must read!
It has been said that a writer writes best that which he knows. This book is a very frank account of RA life in Bautistas' and Castros' Cuba and finally in the United States. It left me wondering if he could have written as well had he been born to different circumstances and had left Cuba before Castro took power. Would that experience have open up the same fertile imagination? On the other hand it also made me wonder what other marvelous works we would have been able to enjoy had his talent been nurtured and allowed to thrive instead of suppressed by the Castro government. Ultimately the tragedy of RA life and work is the incredible waste of the communist experiment in Cuba. For the first time, while reading this book, I realized the futility and boredom of what it is like to live in Castros Cuba. A place where all art, culture and beauty is supressed in order that the masses can be fed a false and failed political doctrine over and over. A life where getting something to eat occupies so much time that you have no strength left to resist the absurd bureacracy that stifles all life. In this context RA work takes on even more meaning. When you realize it was created in a country that offered him the promise of nothing. No material reward for his work no praise, no encouragement.... only the opposite of all those things.
the movie goes into new areas of cinematic excellences, the book will take you int new areas of yourself. it will shock, disgust, make you cry and laugh, sometimes in one single paragraph. i love reinaldo arenas' style and literacy. it pains me to know this was his last work.