Arenas AnnotationApril 6, 2007
The way Reinaldo Arenas opened Before Night Falls was extremely effective. The opening sections work well to create a world that is strange yet natural. There was an expansiveness that sets up his ideas of freedom and view of the world with naturalness and innocence. This expansiveness contrasted starkly with his later life in prison and beyond. Early on he stated: “I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions, and people who were indifferent toward me” (5).
As a child he connects his character intimately with dirt. There is an image of him eating dirt outdoors with his cousin. He talked about how all the children ate dirt. It is the one thing they had an abundance of and it staves off hunger. It comes across as part of his poverty, but it is also part of being a child. Children eat dirt. He explained how his grandmother dug a hole in the dirt floor of their house for his playpen. He talked about creating rivers in the dirt as a young child. His early memories are closely connected to the land.
In one scene he described how all the children were rampant with worms from eating the dirt. He described how his stomach was distended from worms and how traumatized he was by seeing one of those worms after going to the bathroom in a chamber pot. The image is visceral, but real. He created a world in which the body, bodily functions, and dirt are all natural.
There was one part that I particularly liked where Arenas underscored that describing his eating dirt wasn’t an exercise in magic realism. For me this actually underscored the description even more. It made this description more strange and more real. These things are not magic realism, but by referencing it… they almost make it more so. It is an interesting detail. The warmth of his writing is amazing, while human, brutal and sometimes surreal it comes off as more natural and immediate.
Arenas book is heavily steeped in sexuality. Sexuality is life. Sexuality is freedom. Sexuality is nature. Early on he stated: “To see all those naked bodies, all those exposed genitals, was a revelation to me” (8). The sexuality in the book was present from an early age. Arenas wrote about sex as an affirmation of life and humanity. “It was a pleasure for pleasure’s sake, the craving of one body for another, the need to find fulfillment” (105).
Once imprisoned, this form of life ended. Arenas ceased to have sex while in prison. “I refused to make love with any prisoner, even though some, in spite of hunger and mistreatment, were quite desirable” (179). He described how there was no beauty in the act and how it became a symbol of degradation. At this point in the book the author’s zestful vibrancy of sexuality was also imprisoned and he talked about how the Cuban people were robbed of their joy for life and their ability to laugh. “With it the Cuban people lost one of their few means of survival; by taking away their laughter, the Revolution took away from them their deepest sense of the nature of things” (239). The freedom was no longer present.
Sex was closely linked to rebellion and freedom by Arenas. Writing about his sexuality (and acting upon it) was a crime under Castro’s regime, so it represented the ultimate rebellion and affirmation of freedom. Sex is life in this book and the act itself, as well as the abundant chronicling of it in the book, stands in defiance of Castro and the Cuban communist regime.