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Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

Before Night Falls (1992)

by Reinaldo Arenas

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The story of Reinaldo Arenas' life from his childhood and youth in Cuba to his eventual death in New York. I was slightly disappointed by this read since I have seen the film version and was hoping for much more insight into what life in Castro Cuba was actually like. I did get some of that, for sure, but the larger part of the first half of the book is almost solely a list of men that Arenas and his friends had sex with in Havana and surrounding areas. And not in an erotic way, but rather as if you had played a game of golf without keeping score and then tried to remember the number of strokes for each hole afterwards. The parts that are about Cuba and what life was like there are very interesting and when Arenas uses a more poetic voice to describe the horrific conditions they all lived under, the story is very intriguing (and terrible) indeed. I only wish those parts had taken up a much larger part of the book. Unfortunately, I would recommend the film version and suggest a look at Arenas' novels instead. ( )
  -Eva- | Jul 10, 2016 |
This autobiography, which Arenas dictated in between bouts of AIDS-related illness in the final months of his life, is clearly intended as a final settling of accounts with Fidel Castro and his supporters. There's a lot of itemising of the crimes, injustices and humiliations he and his friends have suffered at the hands of the regime, and plenty of naming of names of those who have collaborated with State Security. But it's not the Cuban Gulag Archipelago: its real purpose is not so much to accuse as to mock. Arenas is telling Castro, in front of anyone who will listen, that the glorious socialist revolution was a ridiculous piece of self-deception, that the state's attempts to suppress intellectual dissent have only strengthened the voices of critics, and that hundreds of thousands of Cuban men (including many soldiers, policemen and members of the government) have been having gloriously enjoyable sex with each other all the time without the state's attempt to lock up all the homosexuals having the slightest impact. So there!

Obviously, this also means that you have to be a little careful not to take everything Arenas says as a literal representation of the facts. He will have stayed close enough to the truth to be sure that what he said could not be dismissed out of hand, but he's a novelist, writing to obtain a particular effect, and it would be very surprising if he didn't select and exaggerate on occasion to maximise the impact of what he is saying.

The story opens with an idyllic description of childhood in rural Cuba before the days of Batista or Castro - it's a positive Garden of Eden, in which the young Reinaldo and his childhood friends indulge in every possible form of precocious sexual experimentation with each other and with the local flora and fauna, and Reinaldo tramps around the woods declaiming long epic poems he has composed.

The fun stops with adolescence: Batista comes to power and the family move to a dull provincial town. Teenage Reinaldo runs away to join the revolution against Batista, but he doesn't see any action: the guerillas are as short of weapons as they are of razors, whilst Batista doesn't trust his own troops, so the two armies successfully try to avoid each other until Batista's unexpected flight leaves the way open for Castro to seize power. (Arenas cattily suggests that most of Castro's "20 000 martyrs", if they ever existed, must have been the victims of denunciations and summary executions by their own comrades.)

Reinaldo is frustrated to have come out of the revolution without the requisite beard (he's only 16), but it does give him the chance to escape from the provinces and, after a spell as bookkeeper on a collective farm, study in Havana, where he is soon integrated into the literary world, with a job first at the National Library and the at the Writers' Union. He gives us very affectionate accounts of his two main mentors, Virgilio Piñera and José Lezama Lima, whilst sticking the knife into one or two other great writers. In particular, he disapproves of Alejo Carpentier, who twice tried to block Arenas from being given a literary prize, and Gabriel García Márquez, whom he dismisses as a political opportunist and hanger-on of Castro.

Arenas goes to great lengths to tell us about his sexual adventures in Havana in the sixties, the time when Castro was making the first big purges, and tens of thousands of - presumed - gay men were being shipped off to cut cane in the UMAP labour camps. As he describes it, the police persecution only made the sex more exciting, and there was a never-ending supply of gorgeous "real men" - students, conscripts, married men - out on the beaches and in the bushes looking for sex with locas. The sexual roles (but curiously, not the sexual acts: who penetrates whom is apparently negotiable) are completely defined by Cuba's macho culture - Arenas clearly finds the idea of two locas getting together boring, if not repulsive, and sees the creation of a closed "gay community" as a serious downside to post-Stonewall culture in the US. (In fact, those attitudes are not that different from what you hear from British and American gay men who were around in the 50s and 60s, so maybe Arenas is making too much of the specifically Cuban cultural values there.)

At the same time, life is getting less comfortable for Arenas. Many friends and colleagues are being arrested, some, like Heberto Padilla, being forced to make humiliating public confessions and retractions of their former work. Arenas is unable to publish his work in Cuba, and has great difficulties keeping his manuscripts out of the hands of the police and smuggling them to friends abroad. Eventually, in 1974, he is arrested - ostensibly for a sexual offence but really to put pressure on him to retract his "counter-revolutionary" ideas. He manages to escape from the police station where he is being held and is on the run for about a month, making a couple of attempts to flee the country (another opportunity for him to ridicule the inefficiency of Castro's State Security service...), but eventually he's recaptured and spends a couple of years in captivity, much of it in terrible conditions in the El Morro fort in Havana harbour.

Once out of prison, there's another semi-comic interlude as he manages to survive in Havana for a number of years, despite having no legal means of getting either work or accommodation. Through an absurd combination of circumstances, he finds himself selling an entire abandoned convent on the black market, a brick at a time. He finally manages to get out of Cuba on the Mariel "sealift" in 1980 - again, he attributes this to the inefficiency of State Security, as only "delinquents" are supposed to be allowed to leave, intellectuals being explicitly excluded, but the authorities have so thoroughly expunged his status as a writer that there's nothing on his official file to suggest that he is anything other than a common criminal.

Naturally, there are plenty of disappointments waiting for him in the "free world" - including a lot of people who don't want to hear anything negative about Castro, and a publisher who doesn't especially want to pay him any royalties. But, as he puts it, when the communist system kicks you in the arse, you're expected to smile and say "thank you"; when the capitalist system does it, you're at least allowed to cry.

I found this a surprisingly enjoyable read, often very funny, and by no means what you might expect from a "deathbed memoir". Twenty-five years on, a lot of the political content is only of historical interest, but there are some points that did stick with me, in particular realising how much difference it made to Arenas during his time in prison that there were people outside Cuba who knew about his situation and weren't prepared to let the Cuban government "disappear" him. Obviously we should go on writing those Amnesty International letters! ( )
2 vote thorold | Feb 3, 2016 |
Book about the life of Reinaldo Arenas. From a fighter for the Revolution, through his suppression as a writer, his disillusionment with Castro, his imprisonment and torture, to his flight from Cuba to New York.
  LASC | Oct 11, 2012 |
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. ( )
3 vote jwhenderson | Aug 21, 2010 |
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. ( )
  wandering_star | Jul 23, 2010 |
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The Cuban-born novelist describes his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba, his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, his suppression as a writer, his imprisonment for his homosexuality, and his flight from Cuba.

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