- Reinaldo Arenas: The Pentagonía
Francisco Soto’s monograph is the first book-length study of Reinaldo Arenas to be published in English. Thus, English readers at last have access to more complete information about this important writer, who was born in rural Cuba in 1943 and died of AIDS in New York in 1990. Arenas wrote a total of eleven novels; the eponymous pentagonía (quintet) includes five of these which, in their entirety, were described by Arenas as “both a writer’s autobiography and a metaphor of Cuban history.” The five titles of the pentagonía are Singing from the Well, The Palace of the White Skunks, Farewell to the Sea, The Color of Summer, and The Assault. Soto has divided his book into an introduction, eight chapters, and an interview he held with Arenas in 1987.
In his introduction, Soto chronicles Arenas’s life, including his childhood poverty, his participation in Castro’s revolution and, subsequently, his treatment by Cuban officials as a nonperson because of his political nonconformity and his homosexuality. Unable to publish his works in Cuba (after his first novel), he managed to smuggle several of his manuscripts out of the country to be published abroad. In 1980 Arenas joined the Mariel exodus to the United States. Soto also places the pentagonía in the context of the Cuban documentary (testimonial) novel in order to point out the similarities and differences between Arenas’s works and the documentary, whose most important Cuban practitioner is Miguel Barnet. (Thus, as Soto explains later in more detail, whereas Barnet emphasizes objective reality and revolutionary ideology, Arenas deliberately subverts the genre with a cry for imagination and freedom of expression.)
Soto’s first chapter, which deals with the emergence of the documentary novel in Cuba, relies heavily on Seymour Menton’s seminal study, Prose Fiction of the Cuban Revolution, and Miguel Barnet’s essay, “La novela-testimonio: socio-literatura.” This chapter also delineates the political atmosphere in Cuba during the 1960s and the government’s increasing ideological rigidity, culminating with the Padilla affair in 1971. The establishment by Casa de las Américas of a literary prize for the documentary novel underscored the importance of this genre.
In his second chapter, Soto contrasts Barnet’s novels, which gave voice to the voiceless through “historical” discourse, with Arenas’s [End Page 171] pentagonía, whose narrators emerge as marginalized political dissidents pursuing their lyrical capabilities (they are often frustrated poets) against the whims of dogmatic government censors. Although, as seen below, Arenas’s works share certain characteristics with the docmentary novel, they are strikingly different in many respects.
Soto’s remaining six chapters demonstrate how the pentagonía subverts the testimonial genre through its treatment of the six following elements: the first-person narrative voice (Arenas presents multiple voices, in addition to his narrator-protagonists, in contrast to the single narrator of the novela testimonio); the “real” witness (unlike Barnet’s, Arenas’s protagonists are fictional creations and, in some cases, imaginary doubles); chronology (Arenas undermines the linear time of the documentary through temporal fragmentation and distortion); documentation (the collage of documents arranged by Arenas, instead of lending official authenticity to the text, mocks official discourse); mistrust of literary forms (Arenas dramatizes the creative process, often resulting in poetic digressions unlike the straightforward, realistic prose characteristic of documentary literature); and reinterpretation of recorded history (Arenas distrusts “factual” discourse and rejects the notion of absolute truth).
Additional highlights of these chapters include: the analysis of Arenas’s five protagonist-narrators, who mature from childhood to adolescence to various stages of maturity in each succeeding novel; the influence of Borges as seen in Arenas’s use of metafiction, dreams, and imagination; the representation, usually condemnatory, of approximately one hundred years of Cuban history through the lives of the five protagonists; Arena’s satire of Barnet (Barniz) and Castro (Fifo); and the distrust of language by the self-conscious writer (Arenas), who prefers ambiquity to clarity.
Informative, well written, and carefully documented, Soto’s monograph serves to acquaint English readers with one of...