July 16, 1943 – Reinaldo Arenas:
I have always considered it despicable to grovel for your life as if life were a favor. If you cannot live the way you want, there is no point in living
In his memoir Before Night Falls (1992), Reinaldo Arenas writes of growing up poor in Cuba with his earliest memories of being so hungry he ate dirt. He also vividly recounts his prolific sexual exploits starting when he was a kid when he fooled around with a male cousin, and later with his uncle, then a bevy of men, told with a candidness that shocked readers. Arenas delights in outing people who moved on to high positions in Castro’s regime, and he has no time for the writers like Gabriel García Márquez who he despised for siding with Castro. Who can blame him; Arenas carried on his work in the face of real repression to excuse those who lied about or excused that repression.
The New York Times Book Review named it one of the Ten Best Books of 1993, but Arenas did not get to enjoy its success. His was a hard-knock life that finally knocked him down for good.
Born in the rural Oriente province, into crushing poverty in pre-Castro Cuba, young Arenas was told by a teacher than he had a gift for poetry. When his grandfather heard this news, he beat the boy. When he was a youth, Arenas embraced the Castro revolution and moved to Havana, but then he became disillusioned by the regime, a government that eventually imprisoned him, prohibited him from publishing his work, and threatened to kill him.
In 1970 he was officially branded a “social misfit” and sentenced to a labor camp to cut sugar cane. There he wrote El Central, a poem about a sugar mill that represented the history of slavery and forced labor in Cuba. He attempted to escape from Cuba on an inner tube. He was caught, and sent to an even worse prison.
Because Arenas’s writing was smuggled out of Cuba and published abroad, he was confined to El Morro prison from 1974 to 1976, accused of being a counterrevolutionary.
In prison, he was forbidden from having paper, yet he still managed to write and got his work smuggled out of the country and published abroad. He was finally released from prison in 1976 only after renouncing his own work. Arenas was part of the criminals, gays, the mentally ill on the Mariel Boatlift to Florida in 1980.
On fire with the freedoms of writing and gay sex in New York City, he entered his most prolific phase, but he lived in poverty; seven years later the plague got him.
Arenas’s writing is not always easy going, he was not interested in ordinary realistic drama. He wants to give the reader the secret history of the emotions, the sustaining victories of pleasure and the small dishonesties that toughen the soul.
His novel Singing From The Well (1965) was awarded an honorable mention by a committee of judges headed by Alejo Carpentier, a diplomat and Cuba’s most famous novelist. The book won the Prix Medici in France for Best Foreign Novel of 1969, but it was never reprinted in Cuba because Arenas, like other queers, had become the object of the Castro regime’s ire. His second novel, Hallucinations (1969), has never been published in Cuba.
El Central was published in the USA in 1984. His fortunes improved somewhat when Farewell To The Sea, a novel that he wrote in prison and then rewrote after it had been confiscated, was published in the USA in 1985. That was the first of a quintet titled Pentagonia, the second volume, The Palace Of The White Skunks, was published posthumously in 1991, as well as the memoir Before Night Falls. The other book in the quintet, Singing From The Well was published for the first time in English in 1987, followed by Hallucinations in a new translation and title: The Ill-Fated Peregrinations Of Fray Servando (1987), and The Graveyard Of The Angels (1987).
Ravaged by the unstoppable disease and depressed by the lack of attention paid to his work, he intentionally overdosed on his medicine and (just to be sure) put a plastic “I Love NY” bag over his head in his small apartment on the sixth floor of a walkup in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of the West Side at the end of 1990.
In 2000, Julian Schnabel adapted Before Night Falls into a gorgeous, gay, award-winning film starring Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Olivier Martinez, Diego Luna, and Sean Penn.
Bardem (who was nominated for the Academy Award for his performance), a Spanish actor with a specialty in macho heterosexuality, plays Arenas, and the film has two more convincing gay characters, both played by Depp: Lt. Victor, a sleek, tight-trousered military officer, and “Bon Bon”, a flamboyant transgender character who struts through Castro’s prisons and proves incredibly useful by smuggling out one of Arenas’ manuscripts, concealing it in that special place where most of us, but not all, would be rather inconvenienced by a manuscript.
Arenas is an LGBTQ Hero because of his stubbornness. He could have made his life easier with a little discretion, a little cunning, and the ability to tell the authorities what they wanted to hear. There were a lot of gay men in Cuba who didn’t make their lives as impossible as Arenas did.
In the film, as in life, Arenas seeks misery, but he wears it like a badge of honor. This is one of the best things about the film version of Night Must Fall: Arenas is not presented as the cliché of the heroic gay artist crushed by totalitarian straightness, but as a man who might have been as unhappy no matter where he was born. The script is poetry. Bardem is poetry. The poetic score is really odd and fits gloomily well. The scenes are rough and calm poetry. Even Depp, as Bon Bon, in the role of a lifetime, is poetry.
People that make art are dangerous to any dictatorship. They create beauty. Any beauty is the enemy of fascism. Today there’s an orange colored, financially embattled thousandaire that cannot control a beautiful country, so he plans to simply eliminate it.
Arenas wrote despite everything in his life, and the anguish of creation was a source of his energy. It was never simply what he wrote, but that, standing outside convention, taunting the authorities, inhabiting impossible lives, he wrote at all.