Interpreting Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas
Biographies and autobiographies play an important role in literature, but unlike fiction they are in most cases bound to reflect the exact events that happened in the life of their author or the person he writes about. This type of literature is a source of useful and reliable information about different aspects of human life, but it is necessary to bear in mind that biographies and especially autobiographies are always colored by personal ideas and principles of the author, so they can be, to certain extent, subjective. Before Night Falls, the autobiography written by Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990), is a bright example of such literature both reflecting reality in a very detailed manner and being full of personal emotions and thoughts. This book shows the nature and significance of individual struggle against a large number of different “enemies” – the dictatorship regime, social morale that does not accept homosexuality, inner psychological problems and real physical illnesses.
Such books as Before Night Falls can be analyzed from different perspectives, but historical criticism is likely to be the best option for the interpretation of this text. Arenas starts the story of his life since his early childhood and finishes it with the thoughts that occupied his mind before the suicide he committed in New York. With the help of this book it is possible to learn much about the life of the Cubans before and after the revolution that happened there under the guidance of Fidel Castro. Historical criticism has all the tools to explain various aspects of the book and connect them to the important cultural, social, political and economic changes that happened in Cuba and the USA. This critical approach allows to better understand the meaning of the events happening in Arenas’ life and their significance not only for the development of his own personality, but for the modern culture and history as well.
Arenas portrayed his life since the early childhood as continuous struggle and probably most efforts were devoted to fighting with the regime of Fidel Castro both in Cuba and abroad. When Arenas was a teenager, he decided to join the groups of revolutionaries that were active in the mountains. These military divisions acting according to the orders of Fidel Castro had some magnetic attraction for a small boy who grew up in poverty. Arenas writes that he was fascinated with their bravery and pathetic slogans. However, later when he came there and took part in some guerilla activities, he understood that revolution was not as beautiful as it was described in different propaganda sources. He saw numerous atrocities of the guerillas and realized that in most cases the public support of their actions was explained by the fear of being wounded, killed or put to prison. Arenas gives very impressive and thought-provoking descriptions of his time with the guerillas. These memories are of special interest as they are presented from a perspective of a teenager who was not hardened by the life as it happens in case of many adults. Arenas depicts these events as a sincere and fragile boy who was not moved by the communist ideology of Castro’s supporters. He could not understand the purpose of the crimes against humanity that he witnessed. One episode had a particularly strong impact on Arenas’ attitude to guerillas and Castro’s revolutionary methods in general. It happened on New Year’s Eve when the revolutionaries were celebrating both the holiday and their bright plans for the communistic future of their country. Some guerrillas took a poor peasant to the camp and accused him of anti-revolutionary activities. Without any investigation or questions this peasant was shot by the leader of the group.
Such episodes as shown in autobiographies play a crucial role in interpreting the events of that period in Cuba. The propaganda organized by Fidel Castro hid such cases and presented guerilla activities as a perfect example of honesty, justice and struggle for freedom. However, the memories of witnesses, such as Reinaldo Arenas, gave historians and any other readers of such books a different picture that contradicts with the “official” Cuban sources. The setting of this episode also plays an important role. Throughout the book Arenas admires nature and its beauty. He writes, “To climb a tree is to slowly discover a unique world, rhythmic, magical and harmonious, with its worms, insects, birds, and other living things, all apparently insignificant creatures, telling us their secrets” (Arenas 6). However, in the discussed episode the beauty of the nature is contrasted to the cruelty of human beings. Arenas wants to show that people, who are, in contrast to animals and insects, “significant creatures”, can behave in a manner that is not acceptable for any other living being. In fact, all the characters of the book can be divided into two groups – those who lost their human nature and those who managed to preserve it despite all the difficulties.
The historical criticism provides a variety of techniques that can be used to get better analysis of Arenas’ struggle against the dictatorship regime of Fidel Castro when he decided to stop his connections with guerillas and got closer with those who opposed this style of ruling the people. Arenas describes numerous cases when the Cuban government and official discriminated, oppressed, put to prison and murdered those who were suspected of any counterrevolutionary activities, even if in fact they were not guilty. As since the time Arenas entered a Cuban university to study agriculture he focused on writing, he began to better know artistic circles of Havana, the Cuban capital. He got acquainted with different poets, writers, publishers, and translators who were in most cases considered “unreliable elements” by the Castro’s regime. “Under a dictatorship,” the poet observed, “beauty is always a dissident force, because a dictatorship is itself unaesthetic, grotesque”. The author of Before Night Falls describes many cases when great artists and writers, like, for example, one of outstanding Cuban playwrights and essayists, Virgilio Piñera. “From the start of the Revolution, Virgilio was already marked for his anticommunist reputation. He wrote and published The Puppet”, a story that was “systematically deleted by the Fidel Castro government”.
Another important aspect of Arenas’ autobiography from the perspective of historical criticism is the author’s description of the so-called Mariel boatlift. Although this event cannot be directly labeled as an act of anticommunist struggle, but in fact it is to a certain extent a form of showing disrespect to the Cuban government and its ideology. In 1980 Fidel Castro allowed those who did not want to stay in Cuba to emigrate. However, it was not an act of good will that was supposed to give people a right to make their own choices where to live and what ideology to follow. Castro’s decision was stipulated by the necessity to ease the burden for the Cuban economy that was in a very depressed state in 1980. In this way Castro wanted to reduce the population of the island and, as a result, lower the level of unemployment. At the same time he released a certain number of criminals from prisons and mentally-ill patients from hospitals allowing them to leave for the USA and thus minimized the costs of maintenance for prisons and hospitals. Arenas decided to join those who wanted to leave Cuba as according to the regulations issued for this program, homosexuals were also considered “unwanted elements” and could leave the country if they wanted to. Arenas describes how humiliating it was for him to behave as a stereotyped homosexual to persuade the immigration authorities that he was not the person to be kept in Cuba. Arenas’ memories about the Mariel boatlift are a valuable source of information about the nature of this mass emigration. He highlights that not all people who wanted to leave Cuba could do that, but “only those whom Fidel Castro wanted to get rid of”. However, he also argues that “thousands of honest people also managed to escape”. Combining some historical facts and Arenas’ sincere account of this exodus it is much easier to understand this event with its causes and repercussions.
Although Arenas’ struggle with Fidel Castro’s regime was one of the main purposes of his life, he also faced significant oppression and discrimination for his homosexuality. He had to find ways of surviving in the Cuban society that had in most cases quite a negative attitude towards homosexuals. This attitude was also supported and cultivated by the government as, according to the officials, homosexuality was a mental disease that was incompatible with the communist society. Arenas had to find some compromises that allowed him to exist in the then Cuban communist society. Describing the years he spent at the university he writes, “I was, naturally, not the only one who managed to hide his homosexuality and his rejection of communism”.
He describes many people who had to hide their true identity and principles to guard themselves from being sent to prison. However, when Arenas talks about such important and difficult issues as the struggle for human rights, he keeps using quite elegant and poetic language. He remains a poet in any situation and literature for him is a form of evaluating and judging even such complex problems as LGBT rights in Cuba under the communist regime. When Arenas describes one of the novels he read, he says, “I do not think Cuba has ever witnessed the publication of a novel so explicitly homosexual, so extraordinary complex and rich in imagery, so idiosyncratically Cuban, so Latin American, and, at the same time, so unique”.
However, hiding his homosexuality was not the way Arenas wanted to live all his life. Many episodes of the book are devoted to Arenas’ struggle for freedom that was realized in many different ways. He was trying to find “physical” ways of escaping Cuba, for example, in a basket of a balloon they managed to renovate with friends. Moreover, he often expressed this struggle in the form of writing where he could depict the ideology of oppression without any embellishments. To describe his feeling and emotions, Arenas employs different metaphors often based on contrasts. He summarizes his ideas about the human society and its main conflicts in the following way. He writes, "Two attitudes… always seem to be in conflict throughout our history: on the one hand, the incurable rebels, lovers of freedom and therefore of creativity and experimentation; and on the other, the power-hungry opportunists and demagogues, and thus purveyors of dogma, crime, and the basest of ambitions”. Arenas also adds that these opportunists always use “the same rhetoric, the same speeches, always the drums of militarism stifling the rhythm of poetry and life".
The struggle of an individual with his own psychological problems is one of the most important themes in Arenas’ autobiography. His life was extremely difficult as he, almost always, lived in a society that recognized neither his right to freely express his sexuality not his unique literary talent. He had to find way of smuggling his texts abroad for them to be published there as the Cuban government refused him in publishing any of his novels, except the first one titled Singing from the Well. Living in a dictatorship society he constantly witnessed how the authorities put to prison, concentration camps and even killed people who were, from the perspective of the government, dangerous to the political regime of Fidel Castro. Such hardships and losses could not help causing the instants of discouragements and melancholy. Describing his late years Arenas writes, “The death of Lezama and that of my grandmother, both in the same year, plunged me into the deepest feeling of despair imaginable”. He does not reject these moments, but regards them as an integral part of life. However, Arenas never uses the gloomy tone to depict these psychologically difficult moments. He tells about his struggle with various difficulties in quite a poetic tone full of beautiful imagery and powerful symbols. For example, Arenas presents his ideas about the Cuban history that for him was a very sensitive subject in the following way, “Ours is a national history of betrayals, uprising, desertions, conspiracies, riots, coup d’état; all of them provoked by infinite ambition, abuse, despair, false pride and envy”. With this sentence the author perfectly combines symbols relating to the sphere of human feelings with important historical aspects. Inner world of emotions is for him inseparable from the larger context of a country’s fate and history. In both cases Arenas prefers to fight, but his struggle is not similar to that of guerrillas he witnessed in his youth. Arenas finds strength in admiring nature, in his writing and books written by other writers and transforms this inspiration into powerful inner energy that allows him to survive the prison and oppression from the Cuban government.
Another theme discussed in this book is the struggle with AIDS. Arenas was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and spent three years of his life fighting with this disease that was almost a mystery both for doctors and common people at that time. People did not know much about AIDS treatment and methods of prevention, so for those who were diagnosed with this disease it becomes a battle with some unknown enemy. Arenas describes his knowledge about AIDS in the following way, “I do not know what it is. Nobody really knows. I have spoken with dozens of doctors and it is a puzzle to all of them”. The author is aware that AIDS is not curable, so he continues his struggle that will obviously ends with his defeat. Nevertheless, his death cannot be considered an act of surrendering. After long battle with AIDS Arenas chooses to commit suicide. He takes an overdose of drug, but before that he writes several letters to his friends, his mother and to some influential newspapers. In a certain sense Arenas’ death is an act of free will as he prefers to stop his suffering himself rather than passively waiting for the imminent death. However, even being very close to death he does not lose his ability to ironically evaluate the reality that surrounds him. He says, “AIDS is a perfect illness because it is so alien to human nature and has as its function to destroy life in the mist cruel and systematic way”. Calling AIDS a “perfect illness” is a very brave step for a human who is about to commit suicide because of the sufferings caused by this disease. Arenas does not complain or blame the “enemy” in this struggle. He acknowledges the strengths of this “enemy”, but at the same time shows that he is going to remain the master of his life in all the situations, whether it is a interrogation at a Cuban prison or his final days before the suicide. In this autobiography AIDS, as well as Fidel Castro become the symbols of the forces that deprive human beings of freedom that, according to Arenas, is an integral part of life. Arenas argues that, regardless the setting, an individual should exert every effort to straggle against oppression and discrimination in all of their forms and varieties.
To conclude, Before Night Falls is an autobiography that deals with many complex social, psychological and political issues. Arenas gives a detailed and sincere account of the life he had in Cuba and after leaving this country. He talks about his struggle against Castro’s regime, communist ideology in general and all those who treated homosexuals as inferior people. Arenas also pays much attention to his struggle with his psychological problems and his attitude to his illness after he was diagnosed with AIDS. Historical criticism allows to better understand all these aspects and treat Arenas’ autobiography not only as an excellently written book, but also as an important source of insight information about the life of people in Cuba and the problems of those who managed to immigrate to the United States. All things considered, Before Night Falls is a book worth recommending to those who are interested in Cuban history, LGBT rights, the nature of dictatorship and immigration. This book is also a valuable source of information about the role of an artist in a dysfunctional society.