Before Night Falls, by Reynaldo Arenas

It begins with thunder.

I was still on shaky grounds back in December when I was looking for a new place to live. The second house I moved to was an odd mystery, and I mostly fell to despair knowing that I would have to move out again. But before I left, I found this book buried atop a shelf, along with other ones put on display, but not meant for reading.

It begins with thunder in Louisiana the first time I read Before Night Falls. I was not only physically closer to Cuba, but now Reynaldo Arenas was recounting its history through honest, vivid language, leaving everything in the open—a stark difference from the coldness of the big house I found myself in. Arenas’ life begins with thunder and trees shuddering from violent winds in the countryside of Cuba. From there he describes his best and worst years, witnessing the disappearance of freedom in the island he loved.

In the introduction, The End, Arenas warns readers the tale of his youth doesn’t hide its beauty nor ugliness, as he gives an honest documentation that people may want to reject. He calls this autobiography, “his vengeance against most of the human race,” a rather liberating, anti-authoritarian account.

Palmettos. Image: Cynthia Via

What drew me to Arenas was his love of nature, passion for writing and courage to stand up to an oppresive government. As a boy he lived with his mom and extended family in the countryside: aunts, uncles, grandparents, the whole flock of them. He ran naked and played house with other kids often with nothing more than chickens and dirt surrounding them. While that does sounds like a bucolic paradise for a child, it wasn’t actually. Arenas believed that his childhood was an honest portrayal of his  animalistic instincts often reigning over morality.

His descriptions of rain remind me of how I felt as child listening to thunder: ” It was no ordinary rainfall. It was a tropical drenching heralded by violent thunder in cosmic, orchestral bursts that resounded across the fields, while lightning traced the wild designs on the sky, striking palm trees that suddenly burst into flames and then shriveled like burnt matches.”

Apart from the horrid reality of growing up neglected (his father had all but abandoned him when he was a child, and his mom was never around), Arenas had been left to wander under large trees, digging soil and finding shelter whenever the rain came. Nature distracted him from the cruelty of being alone, and in hindsight his younger years prepared him for the hardships he later faced.

Before Night Falls is about a man exploring his youth and sexuality under a totalitarian regime, as much as it about discovering the true nature of humans when confined to an oppresive state. Arenas’ story goes so far as to spit on the image of that restrictive society that Fidel Castro’s communist regime imposed on the Cuban people.

“A sense of beauty is always dangerous and antagonistic to any dictatorship because it implies a realm extending beyond the limits that a dictatorship can impose on human beings. Beauty is a territory that escapes the control of the political police.”

As a young man, he frequented many beaches and loved to swims much as he loved being with other men. He writes, “perhaps subconsciously we loved the sea as a way to escape from the land where we were repressed; perhaps in floating on the waves we escaped our cursed insularity.”

By the 1970s Cuban government outlawed swimming and traveling by sea, since many Cubans began escaping the island after the state tightened control. This didn’t stop Arenas from trying to escape himself or at least to get his manuscript overseas. When individuals are prohibited from making their own decisions and pursuing their dreams eventually they will venture out, despite the risks and reprisals from the state. It’s counter-intuitive to restrict your citizens from freedom of speech, sexuality and other human rights for the sake of enslaving them to the whim of one leader and a corrupt party. State control in Cuba did not improve the country’s economy nor did it allow for any creative or cultural progress instead it made citizens distrust one another, as they became solely depended on the government to make decisions for them, which resulted in the suffering of many Cubans at the hands of an ill-prepared dictator.

Arenas was able to get his manuscripts out of Cuba and eventually, he too left the island to recount the injustices taking place the island. The survival of his manuscripts emphasizes that the poetry of life always wins.

Many of the political events in the book have been documented in other works, but no one has been brought to justice. And almost 60 years after the Communist Revolution, the Cuban government still violates human rights while keeping its citizens in poverty, and the Castro family remains in power. What about all those who died in the sugar-mill work camps and political prisons?