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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.

 

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

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