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Before Night Falls (1992)

by Reinaldo Arenas

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9071316,860 (4.1)33
"Before Night Fall is Reinaldo Arenas's stunning autobiography - a bold and unrestrained account of his life as a writer and a homosexual. Arenas, acknowledged as one of the great twentieth-century Cuban writers, was born in 1943 into a poor, rural Cuban family. At the age of fifteen he joined Castro's guerrillas against Batista's right-wing regime, only to discover that repression under Castro would be on a monumental scale. Reinaldo Arenas spent twenty years of his life trying to survive his "re-education," to safeguard his manuscripts, and to maintain his sanity when he was imprisoned in El Morro prison in Havana. But despite everything that happened to him, including betrayal by his aunt and some of his closest "friends," Arenas triumphed, finally leaving Cuba during the Mariel exodus in 1980." "But America could never replace his beloved Cuba, and his anti-Castro stance made him unsympathetic to many American intellectuals. The final irony was his battle with AIDS, which dominated the last years of his life until he committed suicide on December 7, 1990, at the age of forty-seven." "Before Night Falls was begun before Arenas left Cuba and was completed in the last stage of the disease. It is an extraordinary document - a compelling and moving account of the hell that Arenas experienced in Cuba and the purgatory he endured in the United States. It is a book both raw and fierce, tender and lyrical, particularly about the Cuban landscape. In it you will discover a man of enormous vitality, resilience, and courage. Arenas writes of his own book, "I tell my truth like a Jew who has suffered from racism, a Russian who has been in the Gulag, or any human being who has eyes to see things as they are: I cry out: therefore I am.""--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)

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Not for everyone. I am not even sure it was "for me". But I do believe it's an important book.

Published in 1993, this is the memoir of a Cuban writer who managed to make it out of Cuba after living through Batista's and then Castro's regimes. Life under Castro, for writers and for gays (Arenas was both) was no walk in the park. Work could only be obtained through approved channels, and Arenas's writing, which was smuggled out of Cuba and published abroad, made him a target. He lived through deep poverty, survived several years in prison, endured torture, and kept writing. More than once he had to rewrite manuscripts that were confiscated or stolen (something I can't really imagine doing) because he had no way of making copies.

A large part of his life, besides the writing, was having sex. He estimated that he had sex with over 1000 men. He made the distinction between "love" and "sex", understanding that what he had was sex, always different, always exciting to him. He recounts many of these escapades in this memoir, so that many pages are devoted to sexual encounters. No, they aren't spelled out in detail, but the sheer volume is enough to make one gasp. Me, anyway.

In some ways the memoir seems choppy. Although the chapters follow a logical progression, he often tells stories of one incident after another without any particular thread holding them together or any particular point to the incident. Just a sense of "this happened" and "then this happened." At times I wondered what was the point of mentioning some things. In other ways he leaves a lot out. For example, he tells us a brief bio of a woman and then says he married her for convenience. When he somehow leaves her behind we are not told how it happened or when. She is simply no longer there. I wonder if an editor might have helped here.

Regardless, the story is revealing, both of Arenas and of Castro's Cuba, a view we probably do not get often enough. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |

Ma dopo vent'anni di repressione, come avrei potuto stare zitto davanti a quei crimini? E inoltre non mi sono mai considerato né di sinistra né di destra, né voglio essere catalogato sotto qualunque etichetta di opportunismo politico. Io racconto la mia verità, come un ebreo che abbia sofferto il razzismo o un russo che sia stato in un gulag, come qualunque essere umano che abbia avuto gli occhi per vedere le cose come sono.

Libro che mi instilla vari dubbi.
Dal punto di vista storico-politico è sicuramente un libro importante, anche se la credibilità viene minata da fanfaronate ed esagerazioni sulla sua vita privata (4000 amanti fino a 24 anni), brani e aneddoti molto numerosi che sembrano vanterie da adolescente, con descrizioni di amplessi fisiologicamente e acrobaticamente impossibili e che alla lunga potrebbero far venire dei dubbi sulla veridicità di alcune vicende raccontate anche se non riguardanti la vita privata dell'autore.
In una biografia, e in un uomo, tutto partecipa a stabilirne la credibilità e queste parti sono importanti per capire l'uomo in questione.
Nulla importa che siano storie omosessuali. Sarebbe lo stesso se fossero eterosessuali.
Le esagerazioni di stampo machista quindi possono influire sulla percezione della verità.

Strano anche che non venga mai nominato Ernesto Guevara, uno dei protagonisti della rivoluzione cubana. Mai citato in questo libro. Uomo simbolo, forse più di Castro per chi vive all'estero, in tutto il mondo quando si parla di rivoluzionari che hanno cambiato la storia.
Ciò non toglie, però, che le storie raccontate da Ameras siano un bel pugno nello stomaco, che descrivono una realtà piuttosto plausibile e simile a quella raccontata da altri scrittori su altre dittature. Insomma, mi viene da pensare che la parte storico-politica sia vera anche se non ho mai sentito Gianni Minà raccontare storie del genere, ma lui era amico di Fidel (un uomo buono, dice lui) e viveva una realtà falsata da quello che il regime voleva far vedere all'estero e quindi dubito fortemente della sua obiettività.
Pensando a Minà mi viene da riflettere rileggendo questo passo:

Scoprii un animale inesistente a Cuba: il comunista di lusso. Ricordo che durante un banchetto all'Università di Harvard un professore tedesco mi disse: «Posso capire che tu abbia sofferto nel tuo paese, ma io sono un grande ammiratore di Fidel Castro e apprezzo quel che ha fatto a Cuba». In quel momento il professore aveva un enorme piatto di cibo davanti e io gli dissi: «Mi sembra bello che lei ammiri Fidel Castro, ma allora non può finire il piatto che ha davanti, perché nessuna delle persone che vivono a Cuba, salvo gli alti funzionari, può mangiare roba simile». Presi il piatto e lo lanciai contro il muro.

Per lui non sono molto diversi dai fascisti:
I miei incontri con questa sinistra godereccia e fascista furono abbastanza polemici.

Il governo cubano ha negato che ci fosse una persecuzione nei confronti degli omosessuali e ovviamente tutti questi illustri giornalisti hanno creduto a queste dichiarazioni.
Mi chiedo come un giornalista come Minà non si ponga il minimo dubbio su questi fatti continuando a idolatrare un personaggio di dubbia moralità.

La parte della detenzione al morro è piuttosto bella e angosciante, come anche la sua infanzia, appassionante da leggere. Il libro alterna fasi bellissime per come è scritto ad altre francamente banali e stereotipate ma penso che abbia a che fare con quella società fortemente machista che lui stesso racconta avere influenzato moltissimo il suo carattere nonostante le sue inclinazioni sessuali.
Per questi motivi l'ho apprezzato ma non amato.
Ci sono anche commenti curiosi su scrittori celebri e sue particolari riflessioni tipo questa:

Uno dei casi più vistosi di ingiustizia intellettuale di questo secolo fu quello di Jorge Luis Borges, al quale venne sistematicamente negato il Premio Nobel per il suo credo politico. Borges è uno degli scrittori latinoamericani più importanti di questo secolo, forse il più importante; ma nonostante questo il Premio Nobel lo hanno dato a Gabriel Garcia Màrquez, scimmiottatore di Faulkner, amico personale di Castro e opportunista nato. La sua opera, salvo qualche indubbio merito, è piena di populismo, di cianfrusaglieria: non arriva all'altezza dei grandi scrittori morti nell'oblio o trascurati.

È però un libro che si deve leggere, almeno per eliminare un po' quell'alone di divinità che si è dato negli anni a Fidel, dittatore come tutti i dittatori, e per porci delle domande sulla realtà dei fatti che ancora oggi non è poi così chiara visto che le uniche cose che sappiamo di Cuba sono comunque quelle volute dal regime o quelle scritte e raccontate dai dissidenti, che però a quanto pare, e lo scrive anche Arenas in questo libro, spesso non vengono creduti.

Però quella mancanza di Guevara mi puzza... ( )
  Atticus06 | Jun 9, 2020 |
Before Night Falls🍒🍒🍒🍒
By Reinaldo Arenas
1992
Penguin

Reinaldo Arenas, Cuban gay novelist, completed this memoir shortly before his suicide in 1990, just 3 years after being diagnosed with AIDS. Growing up in extreme poverty and an only child, he was eventually given a scholarship for Agricultural Accounting to polytechnic Institute that was really a front for Castros Regime, as a training facility. He became outspoken about his opposition to Castros totalitarianism beliefs and began writing. His novels were banned in the country because of their homosexuality, so he smuggled them abroad to be published. His imprisonment in a forced labor camp, working in sugarcane fields.....his numerous sexual encounters....his eventual escape to NY, where he committed suicide.
This is a fascinating as well as frightening memoir, told with candor and honesty. I'm going to look for more Arenas books
Recommended ( )
  over.the.edge | Aug 13, 2018 |
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 |
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"Before Night Fall is Reinaldo Arenas's stunning autobiography - a bold and unrestrained account of his life as a writer and a homosexual. Arenas, acknowledged as one of the great twentieth-century Cuban writers, was born in 1943 into a poor, rural Cuban family. At the age of fifteen he joined Castro's guerrillas against Batista's right-wing regime, only to discover that repression under Castro would be on a monumental scale. Reinaldo Arenas spent twenty years of his life trying to survive his "re-education," to safeguard his manuscripts, and to maintain his sanity when he was imprisoned in El Morro prison in Havana. But despite everything that happened to him, including betrayal by his aunt and some of his closest "friends," Arenas triumphed, finally leaving Cuba during the Mariel exodus in 1980." "But America could never replace his beloved Cuba, and his anti-Castro stance made him unsympathetic to many American intellectuals. The final irony was his battle with AIDS, which dominated the last years of his life until he committed suicide on December 7, 1990, at the age of forty-seven." "Before Night Falls was begun before Arenas left Cuba and was completed in the last stage of the disease. It is an extraordinary document - a compelling and moving account of the hell that Arenas experienced in Cuba and the purgatory he endured in the United States. It is a book both raw and fierce, tender and lyrical, particularly about the Cuban landscape. In it you will discover a man of enormous vitality, resilience, and courage. Arenas writes of his own book, "I tell my truth like a Jew who has suffered from racism, a Russian who has been in the Gulag, or any human being who has eyes to see things as they are: I cry out: therefore I am.""--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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