- Becoming Reinaldo Arenas: Family, Sexuality, and the Cuban Revolution by Jorge Oliveras
Exile is an existential condition that permanently inflects the writing of many Cubans in the period following the Cuban Revolution. In the case of marielito,1 Reinaldo Arenas, one of Cuba’s most famous exiled writers, exile marked his writing even before he left the island he loved so deeply. In his book Becoming Reinaldo Arenas: Family, Sexuality, and the Cuban Revolution, Jorge Oliveras examines the relationship between exile, family, and sexuality in the writings of Arenas to explore how intertextuality influenced Arenas’s writings. As one of the most prominent openly gay Cuban writers in the aftermath of the Revolution, Arenas was a significant figure shaping Cuban political discourse about queer intellectual cultural production and also an important (and mythic) figure in international intellectual circles, where his early writings were published following a Cuban ban on so-called anti-revolutionary novels. His international stature was prominent even as Arenas suffered from AIDS-related complications and continued even after his suicide.
Olivares methodologically chooses to explore “textual echoes that resonate across Arenas’s vast oeuvre,” including his published and unpublished manuscripts as well as his correspondence (4). Olivares suggests that his goal in choosing this methodological path and in surveying a range of primary discourses is to focus on two main ideas: “Arenas’s critical engagement with the cultural polemics of the 1960s about a realist aesthetic that Cuban cultural ideologues promoted in the form of socialist realism, and the ‘paternal erotics’ that are at the core of Arenas’s literary production” (4–5). As an exploration of father lack, Arenas’s writings focus on a nostalgia for a paternal family figure as well as a longing for the patria or homeland that he was forced to leave behind.
Olivares begins Chapter 1 by situating Arenas within the sexual politics of the postrevolutionary period in Cuba and suggesting that the purges of [End Page 165] homosexual men as part of the constitutive project of revolutionary masculinity were intrinsically linked to the process of imagining a new Cuba. In the wake of Che Guevara’s call for an “hombre Nuevo” (New Man), the Castro government began systemic persecution of gay Cubans, even going so far as to imprison them. As an experimental novelist and openly gay intellectual, Arenas was a prime target for revolutionary persecution and he eventually served time for transgressing the sexual politics of Castro’s regime. Olivares successfully documents Arenas’s ideological resistance to the sexual repression and institutionalized heteronormativity that became the bedrock of revolutionary masculinity.
Following this brief, though dynamic, contextualization of Arenas’s work, Olivares uses the remaining chapters to trace the erotic longing for an absent father that permeates Arenas’s writing. Olivares uses Arenas’s early writings as a way of tracing the autobiographical influence of Arenas’s family dynamic in his conceptualization of sexual politics. In particular, Olivares’s comparison between Fortunata y Jacinta (Fortunata and Jacinta), written by nineteenth-century Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, and Arenas’s Los palacio de las blanqísimas mofetas (The Palace of the White Skunks), provides an excellent example of Arenas’s ability to speak across texts and to link them, reinterpret them, and highlight their sociopolitical investments. By meditating upon Arenas’s use of the same character names and themes as those in Fortunata y Jacinta and by comparing the plot twists in both novels, Olivares makes a compelling case for the side-by-side reading of these books. It also demonstrates Arenas’s singular preoccupation with the absence of a father figure and underscores how Arenas’s use of figurative metaphors suggests that the longing for the patriarch is a sexual longing (and, beyond that, a sexual longing that provides a framework for understanding all of Arenas’s writings).
Oliveras’s most interesting intertexual analysis occurs in Chapter 4, where he tackles Arenas’s interventions in “El Cometa Halley” (Halley’s Comet), and Chapter...