Archive | 3:17 pm

Reinaldo Arenas: There was freedom to say that there was freedom

6 Dec

“Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to critize it.”

(Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls)

“Mal poeta enamorado de la luna”

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) and his wonderful autobiography “Before Night Falls”. I discovered him through the film of the same name starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo and I was instantly captivated by Reinaldo’s life story, and not just him as a person, but the political and social environment that he lived in. What I love most of all about Reinaldo is his strength, courage and a wild, drunken determination to live his life to the fullest. No one had more trials and tribulations in life, and yet no one endured all the life’s misery and defeats with more bravery, defience, and cheekiness than Reinaldo. Despite living under Castro’s oppressive regime, Reinaldo never lost his inner freedom, never bowed down to authority, never comformed or compromised himself only to gain little bread crumbs of safety, profit or convenience. Even when in prison, or on the run from the law, Reinaldo always remained free at heart. He fled to the United States in 1980 and died on the 7th December 1990. In 1989, in New York, he wrote an auto-epitaph that starts with a very beautiful line, here is an excerpt from it:

“A bad poet in love with the moon,

he counted terror as his only fortune :

and it was enough because, being no saint,

he knew that life is risk or abstinence,

that every great ambition is great insanity (…)

He knew imprisonment offenses

typical of human baseness ;

but was always escorted by a certain stoicism

that helped him walk the tightrope

or enjoy the morning’s glory,

and when he tottered, a window would appear

for him to jump toward infinity.

I really love the line that he was always escorted by a certain stoicism that helped him walk the tightrope, a really great description of Reinaldo’s life. These past days the big, yellow letters on the spine of the book “Before Night Falls” have been inviting me from my bookshelf, and I finally gave in, for I am weak when it comes to good books, especially if they are as inspiring as this one is. I have read it a few times and every time something else caught my attention because there are so many ways to approach its content. Well, what struck me the most this time, given the miserable, dystopian times we are living in, was Reinaldo’s description of Fidel Castro’s regime, its beginnings, and the slow but shocking realisation that the future isn’t as bright and victorious as Castro had promised, and that bad things are looming on the horizon:

My grandfather’s grocery store, which had been his livelihood, had already been taken over by the government, and he now spent his time on a stool next to the closed store, talking to himself. He did not read the newspaper or “Bohemia” which no longer was the liberal, irreverent, critical magazine that he used to read to us in the country. By this time it was but another instrument in the hands of Castro and his new regime. The press was now almost completely controlled. Freedom was something constantly talked about but not practiced. There was freedom to say that there was freedom or to praise the regime, but never to criticize it. (…)

Fidel Castro was (and is) not only the maximum leader but also the chief district attorney. In one instant, in which an honest court did not want to condemn a number of air force pilots accused of bombing the city of Santiago de Cuba, which they actually never did, Fidel set himself up as district attorney and judge, and sentenced them to twenty and thirty years in prison. The judge, who had a long rebel beard and had declared them innocent, shot himself. All this had already given us an inkling of what the new regime was about. There was still some hope, however. There is always some hope, especially for cowards. I was one of them, one of those cowardly or hopeful young men who still thought the government had something to offer.