Reinaldo Arenas: 50 years of Celestino

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was one of Cuba’s most important and controversial writers. His debut novel Celestino antes del alba celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Arenas is best known outside the Spanish-speaking world for his posthumously published 1992 autobiography, Antes que anochezca / Before Night Falls (adapted into an award-winning film in 2000 by Julian Schnabel). This documented the horrific persecution he faced under Fidel Castro, both for his openly homosexual lifestyle and for his public antipathy towards the leader’s regime, and his eventual escape to the USA as part of the infamous Mariel Boatlift.

The cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in France in June, 1988.

Reinaldo Arenas in France in June, 1988. (Photo by Louis MONIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

After leaving behind his impoverished rural childhood in Oriente province, Arenas was, like many young Cubans, an active supporter of Castro’s Revolution – even joining the guerrillas as a teenager in the Sierra Maestra mountains. However, by the time he published his first novel in 1967, Celestino antes del alba (later re-written and re-published as Cantando en el pozo / Singing from the Well), he had already begun to fall afoul of the leader’s Communist regime. Consequently it remained the only book of Arenas’s to be published in Cuba during his lifetime, despite its initial popularity and critical acclaim within the country.

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The 1967 Cuban first edition of Celestino antes del alba (sadly not held by the UL)

The novel reflects the author’s “campesino” upbringing in Oriente, as well as the rampant poverty and inequality faced by most Cubans under Fulgencio Batista’s US-backed dictatorship. It does this only obliquely, however, by conveying the fractured experiences (real or imagined) of a sensitive child narrator and his cousin Celestino against a backdrop of brutal rural deprivation and poverty.

The nameless child narrator of Celestino antes del alba and his would-be poet cousin/alter-ego show us the near impossible struggle to find beauty and joy in such a harsh environment. The narrator deals with his surroundings by escaping into game-playing and flights of wild fantasy that gradually blur almost completely with reality. Meanwhile Celestino compulsively writes poetry, carving lines onto every available tree, leaf and other surface he can find. The boys’ behaviour provokes only rage and disgust from their brutish, illiterate grandfather and other family members, who constantly berate them as useless, weak and abnormal.

Here the suppression of artistic impulses and sensitivity – along with an implicit (and occasionally explicit) “queerness”– reflects more the poverty and lack of education of the author’s own childhood environment (and Batista’s Cuba). However, as his writing career progressed, this negative force came to be embodied mainly by Fidel Castro’s Communist regime.

Celestino antes del alba was the first part of what Arenas later called his “Pentagonía”, a “secret history of Cuba” from the 1960s through to the 1980s, and the following novels in this series strongly conveyed the repression he experienced as a homosexual and “dissident” under Castro. These books were all published abroad and, in fact, smuggling his writing out of the country was one of the crimes that led to his imprisonment in El Morro Castle in the late 1970s. The UL holds all the other novels in this series, as well as Andrew Hurley’s popular English translations:

The set

All five novels in the Pentagonia series

Arenas’s escape to the USA in 1980 brought him his freedom, but sadly the rest of his life remained a struggle.  In the opinion of Thomas Colchie, his literary agent, Arenas occupied an awkward position: he was an “exile” from a regime that the Western intellectual left, along with several of the most prominent Latin American authors of the time, were, in theory, sympathetic towards. Therefore, the author found himself somewhat ignored by much of the American intelligentsia and lived a fairly impoverished existence in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York. In 1987 he was diagnosed with AIDS and, due in part to the worsening state of his health, he committed suicide on 7 December 1990, leaving behind the memoir that would go on to make him better known in death than he ever was in life.

The UL recently received a large donation of books relating to LGBT issues in the Spanish-speaking and Lusophone world from Dr. Robert Howes, a prominent historian and political activist, as well as our former colleague here. This collection is currently being catalogued and we will post about it in greater detail later. For now, however, here are some of the books donated by Dr. Howes by and relating to Reinaldo Arenas, including one with a personal inscription by the author. As Arenas’s reputation continues to grow, material of this kind is of immense interest and value to institutions such as ourselves.

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Christopher Greenberg

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