Cuba & the Lasting Magic of Mockery

By David D. Robbins Jr.

It is important to remember those Cubans who suffered under Fidel Castro too, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of a fun Cuban novel you should read …

Reinaldo Arenas, one of my favorite Cuban novelists, like many of his countrymen, was enthused by the early cause of Fidel Castro and his 1959 Revolution, but grew critical, then rebelled against it. He was also the editor of a literary journal, La Gaceta de Cuba, and openly gay. He was arrested twice by Castro goons for what was called “ideological deviation”. Once he escaped. The next time he was sent to one of the worst prisons imaginable, El Morro Castle, alongside murderers. He survived writing love letters for prisoners and dissidents within the walls, and was released years later after being told to renounce his own work. Eventually, he arrived in America via the famed Mariel Boatlift.

Arenas, who was dying of AIDS in the U.S., killed himself — but not before concentrating the power of his pen toward describing the homeland he loved and the leader he loathed into a carnival farewell party of a novel. It’s set at the preparation for the celebration of Fifo’s (thinly-disguised name for Castro) 50th anniversary of dictatorship and is called “The Color of Summer: or The New Garden of Earthly Delights” (the latter part of the name a play on the triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch), a Rabelaisian tale of gay sex, witticism, politics, humor and sad-hued love of country. The writing and stories within are utterly wild. Think John Barth’s “The Floating Opera” meets Salman Rushdie’s “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” and Jean Genet’s “Our Lady of the Flowers”.

The book begins with a wonderful touch of dark humor — a blank line meant for the reader to sign. The reader’s signature allows the author to proceed to reveal his tale without fear of being sued — a darkly comic comment on the state of art in Cuba under Castro — where everyone seemed to need death insurance.

The opening chapter is a play within the book. The reader briefly follows a list of characters as oddly-named as “Bull Macho”, “Skunk in a Funk” (who is also called “Gabriel” and “Reinaldo” — a kind of shadow of the author himself), “Uglissima” and “Gertrudis” — a singer who tries to escape from Cuba in a raft while Castro’s army try to pelt her with eggs as she manages the currents of the ocean. The main body of the book is filled with changing gender pronouns, often for the same characters. These pronoun shifts cleverly enforced the notion that Cubans were forced into living multiple lives in order to hide their true selves, sexually and politically.

The real story begins with gay men parading the street behind Carnival masks and aliases; Cuban poets, blue-collar workers and policeman hiding their true intentions — as some don masks of Cuban patriotism to obscure the true face of a defector. The opposite is also true. Some of the Cuban poets in the book pretend to be defectors in order to befriend those they wish to expose — only later to “rat-them-out” as a show of patriotism. It’s a beautiful satirization of the bureaucracy of informants.

A few of the chapters read like real-life letters written to the author by his real friends. Others mix historical figures, like Cuban writer Jose Marti, with fictional characters and representations of non-fiction personalities. A few of the chapters consist of simple but illuminating tongue-twisters. I loved this piece of gorgeous and delicious-to-the-tongue dialogue, which reminded me of the word-play in William H. Gass’s “The Tunnel”:

“Gotta watch that puta Puntilla, she’d sell you for twenty pieces of pewter, stool-pigeon you for a tin pizza plate, turn turncoat on you for a tiddlywink …”

Though the book is a kind of magic-realism story about the horror of living under Castro, Arenas also finds time to mock America too. He turns his real-life arrival to the country into farcical, absurdist humor. He describes a fiction of real-life Hollywood stars arriving to see the boat. And hilariously, he places Jose Canseco at the port of entry, giving a spontaneous demonstration, on site, of his power as a home-run hitter. And sure enough, Canseco hits a ball out into the ocean, which incidentally nails one of the novel’s protagonists in the chest, knocking her unconscious. In other words, as good as America is, we’re also a goof of feigned concern, celebrity, consumerism, status acquirement and roundabout silliness. It’s delightful storytelling.

The book is a cool piece of fiction that works on many allegorical levels. At times the homosexual humor can be wearing … in the same way that the repetition in Voltaire’s “Candide”, Marquis de Sade’s “Christine” and Rabelais’ “Gargantua” can be tiring. But it is the originality of the book that kept me reading it. Arenas’ writing is uncontrollable, at times magical and at other times darkly funny. But it’s ideas like the following that I love, where Arenas describes a painter — Arenas’ words both suggesting the painting and the dream of a writer whose colors bled, spilling off the page: “(He) paints plants with their roots upside down, seeking their nutrients in the sky/ leaves move about the canvas and ask impossible questions when one looks at them.”

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