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   Review of

  REINALDO ARENAS

  Singing From The Well

 “Son of a bitch! I told you not to climb on the roof of the house – it stops raining faster on the outside than it does inside these days, with you climbing all over the thatch and shinnying down the rain gutters all the time and punching holes in the roof.  You goose! Get to work!”
 

 So goes the hateful relationship between grandfather and grandson in Arenas’s fictional cum biographical novel Singing From The Well about his childhood in pre-Castro Cuba.

The novel was the first in a series called Pentagonia which sketches life in Cuba before and during Castro’s regime.

 “Singing From The Well’ is rich in magical realism mingled with spurts of poignant realism that narrates a child’s impoverished upbringing in rural Cuba.  The author’s powerful use of fantasy to describe feelings of longing for love or the cruelty of growing up in grinding, hopeless poverty is at times enigmatic, yet through the haze of all the abstractions emerges a portrayal that surrounds the reader with emotionally poetic images and heartrending feelings of what it must be like to begin life with everything stacked against you.

The number of narrators in the novel is few, being confined mostly to Celestino’s cousin, his mother, the grandparents and Celestino. The last chapter is entirely composed of strikingly transcendent dialogue.   The cruelty inflicted by the grandparents and the intermittent expressions of love the boy receives from his mother brings to mind the reality that kindness and love does not always prosper under the roof of hopeless poverty.  In the book, the name of the boy narrator, the cousin to Celestino, is undisclosed, leaving the assumption that he is none other than Reinaldo Arenas himself, thus making the book autobiographical in nature.  With its complex style of writing, it can by no means be considered a work of typical Latin American literature, rather, a powerful literary excursion into a world of surrealistic fantasy that brilliantly camouflages the tragic and difficult childhood of the author.

Arenas homosexuality is intimated early in the book, when his cousin Celestino comes to live with the family after his mother’s suicide.  The two cousins are bullied in school and chided as being “queers”, an allusion to the fact that they sleep in the same bed.   The grandfather’s incestuous relationship with Celestino’s mother, his daughter, Carmelina, whom he called a whore and his “doing something behind the mule” while the grandson held the reigns, paints a dramatic picture of the kind of decadence and immorality the boy grew up with.  In spite of his thorny childhood, an image of tender moments and of a child that tries to survive by hiding in a world of imagination reaffirms the concept that children find means of surviving under even the most adverse circumstances. 

 Cousin Celestino is constantly writing poems with and awl on all the trees surrounding the house and on anything else he can find to write on.  It is hard to imagine that he is anything but Arenas’s alter ego.  His grandfather cuts down the trees because he says: “It is filth that is written on them” even though neither he nor the other adults in the family can read.  Is this not perhaps Arenas’s way of saying that his early childhood writing ambitions were met with much antagonism, born out of ignorance? The alter ego theory is contradicted when one day he sees Celestino come out of a thicket of burnt wild pineapples with a stake through his heart.

           “What have they done to you?”

I asked Celestino that as I tried to pull the stake out of his heart.

          “Leave it there.” He smiled at me. “Just leave it there, it’ll come out of it’s own accord.”

 This is Arenas’ profoundly poetic way of saying that Celestino’s sorrow over the loss of his mother will pass with time.  

 The Bautista regime under which Arenas grew up was brutal to the extreme and the constant references to death and punishment found throughout the book reflects the cruelty and indifference perpetrated on the poor by Bautista’s evil government.

 His aunt ‘Adolfino’ sings with her mouth closed, a veiled reference to the silencing of any opposition to the government and his imaginary dead cousins, who are only visible in the fog, may be construed as the invisible opposition to Bautista, the early Castro guerilla forces hiding in the jungle.

Arena has given the reader an excellent depiction of the area of Cuba where he grew up. Local names to many plants and trees are offered and both climate and geography is described so as to give a feeling of the prevailing ambiance.  Scattered references to things that he eats, which by any standard is meager, and the family’s hunger amplifies the perception of poverty, yet the family’s “hunger” is readily perceived as an allusion to a longing for freedom from the oppressive yoke of wretchedness and despair caused by   Bautista’s vile regime. 

 Arenas was born in 1943 in Holguín in the province of Oriente, Cuba.  His first brush with literary fame came in 1963, when he won a storytelling contest.  His early works suggest an influence by such authors as Virgilio Piñera, especially his playElectra Garrigó, which deals with family relationships and José Lezama Lima’s novel “Paradizo which is a novel about a homosexual relationship.   Footprints of the surrealistic abstractions and magical realism in Garcia Marquez’ novel “100 Years of Solitude” are evident in his style of writing, yet it is able to stand alone and apart from this novel in that Arenas used fantasy and surrealism in his own unique and tantalizing way, rather than rendering ideas from Marques’ highly publicized novel.

In 1980 Arenas departed Cuba for good, joining the thousands who left on the Mariel Boatlift for The United States.  He lived and continued to publish in New York City.  After contracting AIDS and some years of considerable suffering, he committed suicide on December 7, 1990.  It is perhaps apposite to include in this review his distressing suicide note as a testament to his intense feelings for his beloved Cuba and the tragedy of his short life.

Dear friends: Owing to the precarious state of my health and the terrible sentimental depression I feel at being unable to continue writing and fighting for the freedom of Cuba, I am ending my life. In the last few years, even though I have been very ill, I have been able to finish my literary work, with which I have worked diligently for almost thirty years. I leave as a legacy all of my terrors, but also the hope that soon Cuba will be free. I am satisfied with having contributed, although modestly, to the triumph of this liberty. I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue to work. None of the people around me were involved in this decision. There is only one man responsible: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of expatriation, the pain of exile, the loneliness and illnesses that I have contracted in exile, I would never have suffered these things if I had lived freely in my own country.

To the Cuban people, those in exile as well as those still on the island, I beg that you continue to fight for freedom. My message is not one of failure, but one of fight and hope.

Cuba will be free. I already am.

Reviewed by:

Kenny Beachmount

All rights reserved.

 

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This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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I wrote this short story during a stay in Denmark

A WINTER MORNING ON THE ISLAND

 (Helnæs Island, Fyn. Denmark)

An elderly woman was the only other passenger on the bus and both of us were sitting quietly engrossed in our own thoughts, now and then looking through the grimy windows to catch a glimpse of the countryside. The narrow country road we travelled on, twisted its way through the landscape in lazy curving motions, ostensibly quite indifferent as to which direction it took. It was early in the morning and the sky was still stretching its greying arms and shaking darkness off its shoulders, while slowly painting the rolling hills with the colours of a midwinter dawn. The driver kindly stopped when I asked him and I left the warm comfort of the of the bus, leaving the old lady behind. The cold air hit my face like a slap on the chin. I was tempted to board the bus again, but oh well, never mind, I thought. Cold or not, I must go on, for I wanted to experience a winter morning on this ancient Island, where once some of my ancestors had lived and toiled.
I left the road and began walking toward the sea shore along a little trail leading across a field. Small tufts of withered, frozen grass poked through the pasture’s thin blanket of snow. They looked like little straw brooms and crunched noisily when I stepped on them with my heavy boots. Small windows of transparent ice covered a myriad of frozen puddles and, like small mirrors pointed toward the sky, reflected the pale rays of the early winter morning sun.
I stopped for a while to savour a momentary silence, which spread across the frigid landscape. The hands of winter had gripped the land with its icy fingers clawing deeply into the soil and I sensed the tranquil serenity which lay before me. It was a timeless instant. My mind and spirit was nourished with images and emotions, imprinting them somewhere in my grey cells. Perhaps it was the stillness playing with my senses for during a few seconds, images of other landscapes, more friendly and belonging to other seasons, seemed to flash before my eyes. My love for summer and a green earth made mockery of the bleakness displayed before me, as I contemplated the sleeping, frozen landscape.
A sea gulll broke the spell with loud squawks as it plunged toward me through the chilly air, perhaps protesting my presence. Close by, a farm house lay nestled snugly amongst a group of pines, arrogantly displaying their prickly, dark-green fur coats to their anaemic surroundings. It was as if they knew they were amongst the chosen few who could show the colours of summer’s splendour, when winter’s ruthless reign had reduced all else to naked skeletons of brownish humdrum colours.
 
I began walking again, stomping my feet to keep them warm and soon reached the shore, where I was greeted with a sharp, stinging breeze. The wind bounced in gusty playfulness off the frozen banks of clay and sand, which announced the end of the land with brazen abruptness. The beach was littered with stranded chunks of ice, mingled in abstract confusion with dark brown seaweeds and wave-polished stones and boulders. A small boat lay overturned at the water’s edge, yawning through a gaping hole in its bow, the victim of some bygone angry storm.A thick blanket of bits and flakes of crushed ice subdued the waves that rolled back and forth in languid motions along the shore. Grinding sounds could be heard as they scoured away, with torturous monotony, at the myriad of seashells and stones scattered on the beach. Some ducks sat huddled together on a floating chunk of ice, puffing their feathers to keep warm. Further in the distance, gulls were surfing on the bitterly cold wind, eagerly scanning the waves among drifting rafts of ice for some small morsel, with which to satisfy their hunger. I followed the beach for a distance, hugging the clay banks for protection against the cold wind, which slashed, at my face with knifelike edges. My entire body protested against the relentless onslaught of its stinging, ice-cold breath.
I found a narrow trail which leding up over the banks onto a large, open meadow inhabited only by a rapidly turning windmill, which sent it’s whooshing sound into the empty space around it and arrogantly thrusted its tower into the air. Further on, the meadow yielded its flat, wind-blown expanse to gently sloping fenced-in fields and little copses of shrubs and trees, tucked away in sheltered hollows. I heard a dog barking as I passed close to a farmhouse and an old man came out from the barn, looking puzzled at me and, perhaps justifiably, wondering what I was doing. I waved to him and shouted that I was just out for a walk and kept on going. Soon I came back up on the road again and began walking toward a small forest about a kilometre away. The sun momentarily looked down upon the landscape through grey and angry clouds, rushing across the sky in wild pursuit of each other.
The woods welcomed me with a calming protection against the frolicking wind. Aging trees stood rocking gently in their winter sleep, their naked arms outstretched toward the feeble warmth of the sun. The Beechwood trees showed off their tiny little brown spears of dormant, verdant splendour, all of them waiting for the day when nature once again would bring forth the season in which they would reign in brilliant glory. Ivies, so scarcely noticed when the trees are clad in swanky summer frocks, now boastfully display their glossy little green flags, riding on bearded stems with lofty, unrestricted ambitions and defiantly waving at winter’s futile attempt to tame them. I tried in vain to visualize these trees decorated with clouds of fluttering leaves and their feet submerged in an unending sea of anemones and violets, as they would be in springtime.
Here and there, small drifts of snow lays scattered like fluffy white pillows on the forest floor, resting on yesteryear’s blanket of brown leaves. A few sprigs of pale greenery poked their heads through this cosy cover of leaves as if searching for encouraging signs to spur on their pent-up energy to grow and mature. Did they not, in some curious way, mirror an image of my own impatient youth when the promise of tomorrow could never arrive soon enough? The calmness and shelter among the trees deceived my senses, for it was still bitterly cold, and an eerie, creaky sound resonated through the woods as the wind played spiteful games among the half-frozen limbs in the crown of the trees.
Shortly the little grove of trees, pretending to be a forest, gave way to a ploughed field with long, brown furrows protruding through the snow filled troughs between them. Stone fences lined the perimeter, like a frame around an abstract painting of brown and white stripes. I chose to go around the field rather than having to stumble across this frozen sea of waves, and walked along the stone fence, which led me to a farm. The upper half of the Dutch door to the stable was open. Heat from the interior escaped as plumes of shimmering air, wafting an odour of stabled animals through the wintry crispness. Strangely, there was no snow on the thatched roof of the main house. Patches of moss clung to the grey-brown stubble as if someone had spattered green paint on it. Smoke came spiralling out the chimney from some cosy warm wood stove in the house, only to be blown into hastily retreating, bewildered looking smudges in the air by the still fairly brisk wind. The thought of a nice warm kitchen only served to heighten my perception of the cold ambience. How tempting it was to go and knock on the door and ask to be invited in for a moment to warm up, but alas! The time when such an action would have been quite normal and acceptable belonged to a bygone era, when the spirit of human kindness was more common.
The narrow paved road near the farm drew a black, curved line in the landscape with neat little houses, perched on both sides like small toy building blocks, rendering splashes of colour to the landscape. Somewhere up ahead I expected to find a side road leading down to a country Inn and given my present state of bodily well being, I couldn’t think of a better destination. The prospect of hot coffee, a meal and some warm comfort produced a feeling of urgency and spirited me down the road at an increased pace and soon I was brought face to face with the Inn. I opened the door and a wave of warm air rushed toward me. My glasses instantly fogged up, producing momentary blindness. I took them off and a hazy picture of the interior unfolded before my now slightly improved vision. The dining room stared at me with naked tables and chairs. A comely woman appeared and bid me a friendly “Hello” and “How are you”? I returned the greeting and replied in a self-pitying voice that I was miserably cold.
After seating myself at a small table by a window, I cleaned my eyeglasses and began looking around the room. A faint smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke lingered in the air. Some faded, smoke stained paintings of nondescript landscapes tried desperately to adorn the walls. Dishevelled houseplants hungering for some loving care, were placed here and there on the windowsills. The tables and chairs bore marks of many years of use, deeply ingrained in their rich, dark brown patina. The floor showed similar signs of heavy use by generations of patrons. This was no doubt a place frequented primarily by local residents.
The woman brought coffee to my table and asked smilingly if I wanted something to eat. I ordered a hot, breaded fillet of Plaice, with curried mayonnaise and a beer. She made a note of my order, but lingered around the table for a moment longer. I could sense her growing curiosity and desire to ask me something, but she turned around and walked back to the kitchen. Well, I thought, who could blame her if she wanted to know who I was and where I came from. After all, I was not a local person and had arrived on foot, rather than by car, the more customary mode of transportation for a strange visitor to this somewhat out of the way Inn. Shortly, the waitress returned with the meal and beer I had ordered and I consumed it with a ravenous appetite. After a cigarette and the rest of the coffee, I was left quite satisfied and ready to leave again, – this time on the homebound leg of my journey. After paying my bill and bidding farewell and thank you, I left.
Once again, I encountered a gusty blast of frigid winter misery. I began walking toward the highway, passing hills and groves, dormant, frozen fields and meadows and wondered which of them my ancestors had spent their lives tilling and harvesting. How many generations had lived and died here? In the not too distant past, had some of them perhaps not been bound to this ancient land as mere serfs for the Lord of some Manor? They lived and died, generation after generation, each passing their wisdom, life experience and genes to the next, – each in turn taking a few more steps up the ladder of knowledge and what we so self-assuredly call “progress”. It struck me that I owed my existence to their perseverance and ability to survive, during a time when this in itself was more of a challenge than I readily could visualize.
After a few kilometres walk, I reached the causeway leading onto the mainland. The wind had subsided somewhat but it didn’t seem to make any difference to my state of comfort. It was well past midday and the sun was hanging quite a bit lower on the horizon, playing hide and seek between sombre, dark grey clouds. I heard a car coming from behind and it stopped a short distance ahead of me. As I reached it, a man opened the window and asked if I was going to town, to which I replied in the affirmative. “Hop-in”, he said, I’m going there to get a few things. I needed no second invitation, for my bus was not due to arrive for another hour. We reached town in a matter of 20 minutes or so, and he was kind enough to drop me right where I lived. I walked up the familiar stairs to my apartment, happy to be home again after hiking some 14 km on a day, when common sense should have prevailed and kept me snugly indoors. It was nice to sit in a comfortable chair, a cup of hot coffee and something a little stronger within arms reach. After a while, I realized how tired I was, but the journey had been worthwhile. It had given me moments of contemplative pleasure and would remain fresh in my memory for a long time.

Kenny Beechmount

 
Helnæs Island, Fyn. Denmark 1987.

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This work by K. Larsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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