I came across this book, Before Night Falls, after watching the Julian Schnabel movie based on the book in 2000. The book was originally published in 1993 but it did not gain worldwide attention until it was turned into a biopic, starring Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, and Sean Penn. And now fifteen years after my first encounter with the book, I do not know how many copies I have lost, lent, or given away to my friends. After a while, I got tired of buying it and not having it and then I bought an e-book version of it. Now I always have the electronic copy.
The book is the most raw, no-holds-barred, autobiography in which an author reveals his consciousness as it comes in contact with absurdly oppressive and grand political narratives. Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban writer, who could only publish one book in his home country, initially was a foot soldier, a rebel, fighting for the revolutionary force of Fidel Castro in 1959.
As has often happened in world history, revolutions have the habit of becoming new orthodoxies. After Castro seized power, Arenas gradually became a target of the new regime’s oppressive techniques because of his homoerotic lifestyle, his anarchic sense of freedom, and his pansexuality.
Initially, he was just marginalised by the custodians of literary taste. He would regularly send his books to literary competitions. In the first two instances, he received First Honorable Mentions, but the judges failed to come up with better books. Therefore, for two years there were no first prizes (1965 and 1966). Then he was banned outright.
He had to smuggle his books out of the country to be published. In 1969, he even shared the French Prize for the Best Foreign Book with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But then his fate took a different course. He was put under state surveillance for publishing abroad without the approval of Cuban authorities.
The Communist regime tried to silence him because of crimes labelled as “counterrevolutionary diversionism” and “ideological deviation.” In 1970, he was sent to work on sugarcane plantations as a labourer by the authorities. He wrote against this practice as well. By 1973, he had offended the communist bureaucracy to such an extent that he was put in jail. He broke out of the jail and tried to leave Cuba by swimming to the USA on the tube of a tyre. This misadventure resulted in another arrest.
This time he was put in the most notorious prison of Cuba, the El Morro Castle, where the most dangerous criminals — rapists and murderers — were housed. Arenas became a letter writer for the criminals in jail to save his life and to ensure that he had access to writing instruments and paper. But the inmates also had the habit of using the leaves of Arenas’ books as paper for rolling cigarettes. Here is how Arenas describes one such incident: “When I got back to my bunk I noticed that someone had stolen my copy of the Iliad; it would have been useless to try to look for it; most likely, Homer had already gone up in smoke.”
Eventually, Reinaldo Arenas was able to leave the prison. He also managed to escape from Cuba on a boat, disguised as a person with a different surname: “Before entering the area for people already authorised to leave the country, we had to wait in a long line and submit our passports to an agent of State Security who checked our names against those listed in a huge book; they were the names of people not authorised to leave the country. I was terrified. I quickly asked someone for a pen and since my passport was handwritten and the e of Arenas was closed, I changed it to i and became Reinaldo Arinas. The officer looked up my new name, and of course never found it.” It took him five days on the boat to reach Florida, USA.
Written in a disarmingly straightforward style, the book is a testimonial to the resilience of human beings while facing implacable forces of history. Mario Vargas Ilosa has described the book as “one of the most shattering testimonials ever written on the subject of oppression and defiance.” The book is an unforgettable lesson of history and validates the intuition of peasants when they distrust grand schemes that are aimed to uplift their situation: “the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.”