Before Night Falls : A Memoir

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1994-10-01
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)

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The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas "is a book above all about being free," said The New York Review of Books--sexually, politically, artistically. Arenas recounts a stunning odyssey from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his supression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In what The Miami Herald calls his "deathbed ode to eroticism," Arenas breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime. Recorded in simple, straightforward prose, this is the true story of the Kafkaesque life and world re-created in the author's acclaimed novels.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The End ix
The Stones
The Grove
The River
The Temple of the Spirits
The Well
Christmas Eve
The Harvest
The Downpour
The Spectacle
The Morning Fog
The Night, My Grandmother
The Earth
The Sea
The Rub Pub
The Revolution
A Student
Fidel Castro
The Fire
Theatrics and the Chicken Farm
Good-Bye to the Chicken Farm
The Library
The Cuban Book Institute
The Four Categories of Gays
Virgilio Pinera
Lezama Lima
My Generation
A Trip
Jorge and Margarita
Santa Marica (Saint Queer)
The Abreu Brothers
The Sugar Mill
Olga Andreu
The Padilla ``Case''
A Trip to Holguin
Nelson Rodriguez
The Wedding
The Arrest
The Flight
The Capture
Villa Marista
Again at el Morro
An ``Open'' Jail
Out on the Street
The Monserrate Hotel
Good-Bye to Virgilio
Key West
Mariel Magazine
The Eviction
The Announcement


Chapter One

THE STONES I was two. I was standing there, naked. I bent down and licked the earth. The first taste I remember is the taste of the earth. I used to eat dirt with my cousin Dulce María, who was also two. I was a skinny kid with a distended belly full of worms from eating so much dirt. We ate dirt in the shed. The shed was the place next to the house where the animals slept, that is, the horses, the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the sheep.

    Someone reprimanded us for eating dirt. Who was it? My mother? My grandmother? One of my aunts? Or maybe it was my grandfather? One day I had a terrible bellyache. I did not even have time to get to the outhouse, and I used the chamber pot that was under the bed I shared with my mother. The first thing that came out was a huge worm, a red creature with many legs like a centipede. It was jumping up and down in the pot, no doubt enraged at having been expelled from its home in such a violent way. I was deathly afraid of this worm, which now appeared in my dreams every night trying to get into my belly while I embraced my mother.

    My mother was a very beautiful, very lonely woman. She had known only one man, my father, and had enjoyed love for only a few months. My father was an adventurer. He fell in love with my mother, became formally engaged to her by asking my grandfather for her hand, and three months later left her. My mother first lived with her prospective parents-in-law. There she waited for a year, but my father never returned. When I was three months old my mother returned to my grandparents' home with me, the proof of her failure. I do not remember where I was born and I never met my father's family, but I think it was in the country, in the northern part of Oriente province. My grandmother and everyone else at home always tried to instill in me a great hatred toward my father because he had deceived (that was the word) my mother. I remember they taught me a song about a son who kills his father to avenge his abandoned mother. I would sing that song to the whole family, who listened, enraptured. The song, which was very popular in those days, relates the sufferings of a woman whose lover seduced her and vanished after getting her pregnant. The song ended as follows:

The boy grew up and became a man,

and to the wars he went to fight.

In vengeance he killed his father:

The sons who love will do what's right.

    One day my mother and I were on our way to visit one of my aunts. As we walked down to the river, a man came toward us; he was good-looking, tall and dark. My mother fell into a sudden rage; she began picking up stones from the riverbank and throwing them at his head, while the man, in spite of the shower of rocks, kept coming toward us. When he was close to me, he put his hand into his pocket, pulled out two pesos, and gave them to me. He then patted me on the head and ran away to avoid being hit by one of the stones. My mother cried all the way to my aunt's house, where I found out that the man was my father. I never saw him again, nor the two pesos; my aunt asked my mother to lend them to her and I do not know if she ever paid them back.

    My mother was a "fallen" woman, as they used to say. It would have been difficult for her to find another husband; marriage was for virgins and she had been seduced. If any man approached her it was, as common wisdom had it in those days, to "take advantage of her." My mother, therefore, had to be very mistrustful. We went to dances together; she always took me along, although I was then only about four years old. If a man asked her to dance, I would wait on a bench; once the dance was over my mother would come and sit next to me again. If someone invited her to have a beer, she dragged me along; I did not drink beer, but my mother's suitor had to buy me many rallados , which is what we in the country called ice grated with a plane and flavored with colored fruit syrup. Perhaps my mother thought that at one of those dances she would find a dependable man who might marry her. She did not find him, or did not want to. I think my mother was always faithful to my father's infidelity--and chose chastity; a bitter chastity, unnatural and cruel, because she was then only twenty years old. My mother's chastity was worse than that of a virgin, because she had known the pleasures of love for a few months and then gave all of it up for the rest of her life. This created in her a great sense of frustration.

    One night, when I was already in bed, my mother asked me a question that at the time disturbed me greatly. She wanted to know if I would feel really sad if she died. I hugged her and started to cry. I think she cried too, and told me to forget she had ever asked. I realized later, or perhaps even then, that my mother was contemplating suicide but had refrained because of me.

    I was still an ugly boy, potbellied and with a very big head. I think that my mother did not have enough practical sense to be raising a child. She was young, had no experience, and was living in my grandmother's home. It was my grandmother who was in charge of the household; in her own words, she was "the captain in command." My mother was single and with a child, a sort of freeloader. She was not in a position to make any decisions, not even about me. I do not know whether my mother loved me then; I remember that if I cried she would pick me up, but always so violently that I would slide back down over her shoulders and hit the floor head-on. At other times, she would rock me in a hammock made from a flour sack, but she rocked me so hard that I would fall out. I think that was why my head was full of scabs and bumps. But I survived. As luck would have it, our house was a large, typical Cuban bohío , a hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor.

    That house was full of women. There were unmarried aunts as young as my mother, and others already considered old maids because they were over thirty. There was also a daughter-in-law, abandoned by one of my grandparents' sons, who was Dulce María's mother. The married aunts would also come and stay for long periods of time. They came with their children, who were older than I was, and I would envy them because they knew their fathers and this gave them a self-assured and confident manner that I never had. Most of these relatives lived close to my grandfather's home. Sometimes they just came for a visit and my grandmother would make a special dessert and turn the whole thing into a party. My great-grandmother also lived in the house; she was very old and could hardly move. Most of the time she sat on a stool near a crystal radio receiver that she would never listen to.

    The heart of the house was my grandmother. She peed standing up, and spoke with God. She always called God and the Virgin Mary to account for all the misfortunes that threatened us or that had befallen us: the droughts, the thunderbolt that had scorched a palm tree or killed a horse, the cows that died of an incurable disease, and my grandfather's drinking sprees, after which he would come home and beat her up. My grandmother then had eleven unmarried daughters and three married sons. In time, the unmarried daughters would find temporary husbands who would take them away and, as with my mother, a few months later abandon them. They were attractive women who for some fatal reason could not hold any man. My grandparents' home was full of their very pregnant daughters or crying kids like me. The world of my childhood was filled with abandoned women; the only man in that house was my grandfather. My grandfather had been a Don Juan, but now he was a bald, old man. He did not talk with God as my grandmother did; he talked to himself. Sometimes he would look up to the heavens and swear. He had fathered several children with other women of the neighborhood, who in time also came to live in my grandmother's house. At that point, my grandmother decided not to sleep with my grandfather again, and so she also was celibate and as frustrated as her daughters.

    My grandfather had his bouts of rage too; he would stop talking altogether, leave home and go into the woods, sleeping under the trees for weeks. He said he was an atheist, but he spent a lot of energy cursing the Mother of God. Perhaps he did all this to irritate my grandmother, who would always devotedly fall down on her knees, even in the middle of the fields, to ask the heavens for something or other, which, in general, she did not get.

THE GROVE I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people who were indifferent toward me. My existence was not even justified, nobody cared. This gave me an incredible opportunity to escape it all without anyone worrying about where I was or when I would return. I used to climb trees, and everything seemed much more beautiful from up there. I could embrace the world in its completeness and feel a harmony that I could not experience down below, with the clamor of my aunts, the cursing of my grandfather, or the cackling of the hens.... Trees have a secret life that is only revealed to those willing to climb them. To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique


Excerpted from BEFORE NIGHT FALLS by REINALDO ARENAS. Copyright © 2000 by Fine Line Features.
Translation copyright © 1993 Estate of Reinaldo Arenas and Dolores M. Koch. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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