A revolutionary paradox

JAN Becoming arenasBecoming Reinaldo Arenas: Family, sexuality, and the Cuban revolution
Jorge Olivares
2013, Duke University Press
241 pages


“WHAT should we do with Reinaldo Arenas?” So asked Arturo Arango, in 2002, in an attempt to evaluate Arenas’s place in the Cuban literary canon. Arenas worked as an openly gay writer whose work rose to prominence in the 1960s. It was in 1965, though, that Fidel Castro announced that he did not believe that “a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist militant”. That same year, Castro authorised the founding of work camps for so-called “non-conformists”, the purpose of which was to “educate” and “save” homosexuals from the prospect of becoming “parasites” or “counterrevolutionaries” through the imposition of “military discipline”.

It can barely be a surprise that in such an atmosphere, Arenas himself turned against the Cuban Revolution, and made his stance clear in his writings and in interviews. For this reason, his work has often found itself being denounced as counter-revolutionary by some supporters of the Cuban Revolution. Yet, as Arango recognises, Arenas’s work is more complex than that. Not his politics, of course, which remains fiercely opposed to the Revolution. But Arenas’s novels, perhaps especially …, read today as enduring works of art. Arango himself acknowledged Arenas’s “total incomprehension” of the over-arching “social project” of the Revolution, but endeavoured to hold on to something of the importance of Arenas’s artistic output in spite of its politics, in much the same way that Edward Said urges literary critics to both admire the artistic excellence of many European imperialist writers, perhaps foremost amongst them Kipling, whilst simultaneously abhorring their politics.

Where does Jorge Olivares stand on this debate over the place of Arenas in Cuban literary culture? Unfortunately, he largely sidesteps this issue, resigning himself to the fact that there remains “no satisfactory answer to Arango’s important question”. Yet in doing so, he has produced a finely wrought study of the origins of many of Arenas’s most important works, and a significant number of his lesser known writings also. He excavates much of the recent debate over Arenas’s legacy through a survey of his place in Cuban national culture in an all too short final chapter, but the real strength of Olivares’s work lies in his recovery of the personal and political contexts in which Arenas’s works were written. Perhaps most important are the ways in which Olivares reads Arenas’s relationships with close family members, his parents in particular, into the writing of his fiction. Granted, Arenas remains a complex artist, whose complexity derives from the power of his writings, many of which were inspired by his rejection of a political project that had itself ostracised him and many others simply on the grounds of their sexuality. Nevertheless, Olivares makes a strong case for us to consider Arenas as “arguably the most important writer [of fiction, at least] to have come out of the Cuban Revolution”. This book is by no means a complete biography of Arenas, and nor does it aim to be. Instead, through a combination of literary-critical analysis, biography and political history it opens up an important angle into the study of the relationship between sexual politics, art and revolutionary politics in Cuba.