Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Cuba: "Singing from the Well" by Reinaldo Arenas

Many of the books I get for this project come from the clearance shelf at Half Price Books. Perhaps they are affordable because they are so depressing that no one else wants to read them?  Singing from the Well is a now-recognized classic of Cuban literature, an example of magical realism in the Latin American style, and the first novel of a writer, Reinaldo Arenas, not much honored in his lifetime for his genius. It is, as most reviewers acknowledge, not for the faint of heart.

Arenas, who was born in 1943, wrote the first version of the novel in his early twenties. He revised it after landing in the U.S. on a boat from Mariel in 1980. It is thought to be at least semi-autobiographical. This book is also the first of five that Arenas wrote depicting the "secret history" of his country. Some commentators have said that the novel is an allegory for the Batista regime (overthrown, with Arenas' full participation, in 1959 to put Castro in power).

In this work a boy lives with his mother, grandparents, and an aunt in rural Cuba, in a region frequently shrouded in mist. Subsistence farming is the only way to get by. They all work the corn field; he is charged with rounding up the cattle at milking time and carrying water. The lyrical passages that mark Arenas' style describe the countryside and the boy's interaction with nature. This is not the most lyrical example but it give you some sense of the voice of the boy.

"...I can't see anything. Not even myself. I just squint into the big fog that splits open once in awhile and then closes right back up again, thicker and whiter than ever. And all I can hear is the sound of the birds singing uncertainly and flying off in lord knows what direction... The sound of the birds and Celestino whacking on the trunks of trees. And I don't worry anymore about how long it might take Celestino to write that poetry. Sometimes I don't want him to ever finish. I wish both of us could die and the poetry could keep going on and not ever finish." (p. 126).

Celestino is described as the boy's cousin, but might be his alter ego. We never know for sure. He writes poetry, actually carves it, onto the trunks of trees and later scratches it onto leaves because the grandfather has chopped down all the trees with of his grandson's crazy, suspicious words on them. The boy wishes for death because the brutal grandfather rules the family with a switch, sexually abuses his own daughters and the farm's draft animals, and shows no concern for anyone but himself. He is also the only adult male character in the novel. The neighbors know he is loco and avoid the entire family, further isolating them.

The grandson(s)--the boy and Celestino, who might actually be one person--live for poetry and nature and the pure freedom of being off on their own in the almost magical woods and scrub. They encounter or imagine witches, ghosts of their dead cousins, and real animals, birds and flowers. They build a "castle" of red mud and populate it with kings and queens made of the jars and containers they filch from their grandmother's storeroom. They swim in the river, pick the flowers and watch the clouds. It sounds like an idyll, except for that grandfather.

The grandfather exists to keep existing. His entire focus is on food production.The grandfather severely beats the boy for failing to be attentive enough at herding cattle, weeding corn, or hauling the buckets. His wife and daughters, the boy's mother and aunt, follow suit. They yell at the boy, throw boiling water at him, and commit other forms of emotional and physical abuse. His mother says several times, "I should have died before I was born rather than have a son like you."

In one of the very few examples of human tenderness in the novel, the boy's mother strokes his hair after he falls in the mud while carrying water from the well.  He treasures that memory and lies in the mud again just to recreate it. He so desperately wants nurturing in his life that he cares (repeatedly) for baby birds, either those nesting in the thatch roof of the house or a tree, or one he "rescues" from its nest to bring home and keep in his bed. Suffice it to say, that none of the adults around him notice anything about the boy other than an extra pair of hands to abuse and an extra mouth to feed.

If this is autobiography, then Arenas' departure to attend school in the city must have been an overwhelming relief. He went on to study literature and work in Havana before being condemned for his sexuality and later exiled to the U.S., where he committed suicide in 1990 rather than die from AIDS (with which he had been diagnosed). The 2000 movie Before Night Falls is based on his autobiography of the same title.

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