Singing from the Well
His mother talks piously of the heaven that awaits the good, and disciplines him with an ox prod. His grandmother burns his precious crosses for kindling. His cousins meet to plot their grandfather's death. Yet in the hills surrounding his home, another reality exists, a place where his mother wears flowers in her hair, and his cousin Celestino, a poet who inscribes verse on the trunks of trees, understands his visions.
The first novel in Reinaldo Arenas's "secret history of Cuba," a quintet he called the Pentagonia, Singing from the Well is by turns explosively crude and breathtakingly lyrical. In the end, it is a stunning depiction of a childhood besieged by horror--and a moving defense of liberty and the imagination in a world of barbarity, persecution, and ignorance.
In May of 1980, the Cuban dissident poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990) arrived in Key West, Florida, after a harrowing five-day sea voyage on a pleasure craft named the San Lázaro. Having thus completed his own Mariel “exodus” that should have taken no more than seven hours, he expected to be welcomed by the American intellectual community that had hailed his works, published abroad while he was still in Cuba. He did not realize how parsimoniously the title of dissident was meted out to foreign authors (who ever heard of a dissident American author?) by the U.S. intellectual community and its publishers. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, “dissident” was a term customarily restricted to certain, and only certain, Soviet and Eastern European authors, the qualifications for which have never been revealed by Washington insiders or the then budding media conglomerates. Latin American authors were not dissidents but “exiles.” Cuban exiles, Haitian exiles, Dominican exiles, Chilean exiles, Argentine exiles. Manuel Puig (Argentina) was not a dissident writer; Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia) was. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn (USSR); but not Manlio Argueta (El Salvador). And especially not Cubans, writers or otherwise—Gusanos (worms), escoria (dregs), agentes del CIA (CIA agents), perhaps. Reinaldo did not know that in America he would become, not a celebrity, but an invisible man; that he would vanish, disappear.
There is an old saying of the Cold War, first told me by Carlos Franqui, one of the early revolutionaries who joined Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra, to organize and direct Radio Rebelde: “In Communism and in Capitalism, they kick you in the ass,” he said. “But the difference is, under Communism, you have to smile and say, Thank you; whereas under Capitalism, at least you can scream.” Well, Reinaldo Arenas had come to scream…
In time, of course, Arenas would learn that when you scream without a microphone, nobody hears you, except maybe the next-door neighbor, who calls the landlord who calls the police, to have you evicted from your 43rd Street, rat-infested, New York City apartment. In the meantime, professors at famous American universities began expunging his novels from their syllabuses. Newspapers would select reviewers who had just come back from their latest two-week junket in Havana, all expenses paid by the Revolution, to learn how Utopia thrived in “the first free territory of the Americas.” While Reinaldo was living in a police-patrolled, rent-controlled Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the neighboring New York Times published a Sunday magazine cover story on “Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin American.” The theme of the piece was, of course, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, its pros and cons in the minds of the Latin American intelligentsia. Incorporating extended interviews with, among other authors, García Márquez of Colombia (pro-Fidel), Octavio Paz of Mexico (anti-Fidel), and Julio Cortázar of Argentina (frequent-flier on Cubana de Aviación, though his books never accompanied him), the most telling aspect of the entire piece was what was untold, naturally. Not a single Cuban intellectual, either inside or outside of Cuba, had been asked his opinion on the subject. Reinaldo wrote a letter of protest to the editor, which was never published. He did not exist.
In Germany, one of Arenas’s publishers sponsored a Latin American festival, to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1985, to which neither he, nor the Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (also in exile, and under contract to the same publisher) were invited. One of the editors of the publishing house was, yes, traveling back and forth to Cuba, learning about the Revolution. It seems that UNEAC (the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) had insisted it would only send its authors if no were invited. None were, but the promised shipment of genuine intellectual puros never showed up either. As Cabrera Infante would say, Holy Smoke!
Curiously, even the published versions of Reinaldo’s—and Guillermo’s—works became extremely difficult to find. Their Spanish publisher “couldn’t give them away.” Still, when bookstores ordered copies, they consistently received notices that the publisher was “temporarily out of stock.” Arenas had also been told by his French publisher, shortly after his escape from Cuba, that his translator (the most famous in all of France) was just too busy to translate his remaining works; a few years later Reinaldo received a disheartened letter from that same translator asking why, after so many years of faithful service, the author had no longer wanted him as his translator. Reinaldo screamed. Nobody heard…
How different it had been in Cuba. In 1965, a then twenty-two-year-old Reinaldo Arenas had won second prize for the manuscript of his first novel, Celestino Before Dawn, in an annual competition for best fiction sponsored by UNEAC in Havana. With a truly incantatory blend of the prosaic and the lyrical, a young boy “sings” the tale of his own awakenings, sexual and poetic, to the world about him through the irreverent promptings of his (imagined?) cousin Celestino. The novel would be published in 1967, selling out within a week, but would never be reissued inside of Cuba again. (It was eventually rewritten in exile as Singing from the Well. The first version is rumored to have been recently republished in Havana.)
In 1966, heralded as a young prodigy of the Revolution and acknowledged by such luminaries as the Cuban literary “giant,” José Lezama Lima, for the baroque pyrotechnics of his style, his wit and (more discreetly) his libido, Arenas improvidently entered the manuscript of a second novel in the next annual competition. Improvidently, because with Hallucinations he quite daringly recast the life of the historical Fray Servando into fiction, updating this Mexican pícaro’s exploits with salacious detail and political innuendo.
On December 12, 1794, the iconoclastical friar, Servando Teresa de Mier (1763–1827), renowned for the brilliance of his oratory, his wit, and his intellect, had delivered a heretical sermon at the Cathedral of Mexico City. The heresy was in suggesting, however obliquely, that the aboriginal Americans might have already been blessed with a good Christian “education” prior to the Spanish Conquest—by the Apostle Thomas, whom Servando believed to be revered by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent). Immediately, the incorrigible Servando was banished to Spain, tried, and imprisoned. The balance of his life was spent in jail or in flight, harassed by the Holy Inquisition, hounded by the Spanish authorities, escaping dungeons, wandering in exile. The infamous sermon had wreaked havoc on the course of his life, though fortunately it would provoke his final revenge: the writing of his fantastic memoirs.
His, too, had been an age of revolutions (1776, in America; 1789, in France) and conflicting fanatical fervors, throughout Europe and Latin America. The powers of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire had been foundering on both continents. There were many Inquisitions, not all of them religious. Eighteenth-Century Rationalism, in its quest for ideological Purities (whether atheistic or clerical, republican or monarchical), seemed bent upon cleansing the Body Politic of the Past, or of the Future.
Arenas’s astonishing fictionalization of Servando’s life in his Hallucinations did win him another
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