- Becoming Reinaldo Arenas: Family, Sexuality, and the Cuban Revolution by Jorge Olivares
The Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas came to the attention of American audiences after the 2000 film based on his autobiography, Before Night Falls. Yet he had lived in the United States for ten years before his death of AIDS-related complications in 1990. His relative obscurity resulted, in part, from the combination of identities he embodied. As both an anti-Castro dissident and a gay man, he fit uncomfortably with the expectations of many different constituencies. His dissidence and unapologetic sexuality earned him a prison sentence in Cuba. In the United States, anti-Castro Cubans rejected him because of his homosexuality, and gay communities were wary of his defiance of the Cuban revolution. This study by Jorge Olivares adds depth and nuance to the work of this often misread or overlooked writer.
Arenas grew up in eastern Cuba and joined Castro’s 1959 revolution at age sixteen, in his telling, as a bored country boy looking for excitement and seduced as much by the idealism of the revolution as by the opportunity to move to Havana. As a young writer, he won the support of a network of more established writers and gained some recognition, as well as notoriety, for his early publications. Eventually the work was banned, but he managed to smuggle manuscripts out of the country via friends from Spain. After a bout in prison under ambiguous charges, he escaped and eventually left the country as part of the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He settled in New York and into exile and spent the last ten years of his life struggling with his ambivalence about Cuba, which he both reviled and longed for, and with the specter of AIDS, which he feared and eventually contracted. Before Night Falls, published posthumously, is at once a dazzling display of his craft as a writer, a social history of the arc of the Cuban revolution, and an unrepentant narrative of his full erotic life, which by his account included thousands [End Page 536] of partners. Olivares’s in-depth analyses of a few well-chosen texts are an attempt to situate Arenas’s life and work as an extended engagement with issues of “sexuality, family, exile and nostalgia” (4). Wisely, he does not aim for an inclusive study of this prolific writer but instead seeks to underscore the importance of these themes while tracing connections between Arenas’s striking life story and stunning literary production, which included short stories, novels, and essays.
The book is organized as a series of discussions about Arenas’s relationships to his absent father, his dominant mother, and, in the context of the early 1980s, his anxieties about health and sexuality. Olivares uses texts such as El palacio de las blanquísimas mofetas, Viaje a La Habana, “El cometa Halley,” and Mona to anchor his close readings and draw out the ways the concerns of the texts are rooted in Arenas’s struggles at different stages of his life. A father whom he met only once at the age of five and under strained circumstances becomes a figure in Arenas’s work who is simultaneously an object of desire and a threat to the stability of self. Mothers, for Arenas via Olivares, shape lives in a literal sense: they mold habits of the body and scrutinize details of appearance, and they are a source of food and knowledge of the world. With regard to the menace of AIDS, Olivares interprets the complexity of the novella Mona as a meditation on desire, disgust, and the elusive nature of truth and reality. Olivares weaves deftly in and out of possibility, fantasy, and memory as he follows the fate of Arenas’s characters. Arenas’s work is rooted in the multiplicity of sexuality, and this thread runs throughout the book. Olivares demonstrates that for Arenas, sexuality was a multivocal and dense node in which political and intimate currents intersected and collided; it was also a...