Before Night Falls Summary

Reinaldo Arenas

Before Night Falls

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Before Night Falls Summary

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The autobiography of Cuban writer and poet Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls, was published posthumously in 1993. Immediately named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, it has since been adapted into a movie and, later, an opera. Before Night Falls tells the story of Arenas’s life growing up in a small town in Cuba, discovering his homosexuality and embracing his gay identity, being persecuted at the hands of Fidel Castro’s virulently homophobic Communist government, escaping to America on the Mariel Boatlift, and eventually contracting AIDS. The book is a document of resistance and sexual liberation, as Arenas never stops fighting against the oppressive forces that have shaped his life.

Arenas, born in 1943, grew up in tiny Oriente, a rural village that no longer exists. His father left his mother while she was still pregnant, so she raised her son in her parents’ house. Along with his mother and grandparents, the house was full of unmarried aunts who were, as Arenas describes them, always desperate to catch a man. Village life was free and Arenas and his childhood companions were almost entirely left to their own devices. The book’s open discussion of sexuality, sexual encounters, and the vagaries of desire begins here, as Arenas describes himself and other boys having sex with farm animals. By age ten, Arenas is aware of his same-sex desire, and experiments with his older cousin.

Village life is turned upside down in 1959 when Fidel Castro mobilizes his supporters to overthrow the corrupt regime of the dictator, Bautista. Now living in the city of Holquin, Arenas joins Castro’s cause. Soon, however, he sees that the new leadership is just as full of bluster and lies as the old one. After the revolution, Castro’s glorious promises of free and excellent education, health care, and other benefits fizzle. Instead, the Revolution becomes a force of oppression. Anyone associated with Bautista’s government is jailed or killed; anyone criticizing the new regime is treated similarly. The currency is devalued so that no one can escape the country. Homosexuality is outlawed and punished with life in a concentration-camp-like environment.

Arenas is a good enough student to qualify for one of the new military-directed schools in Havana. But he has no interest in becoming an agricultural accountant, so he starts writing poetry. He wins a contest hosted by the national library, giving him access to a job there. He writes and publishes several books. Dropping out of school, Arenas adopts a bohemian artist lifestyle, full of literary gatherings, theater, ballet, and sex with seemingly every man he sees. These encounters are joyous and give Arenas a sense of psychic fulfillment – the book never lets up its direct and in-your-face exploration of sexuality, so much so that even the random personality quirks or mannerisms of the people Arenas describes are eventually ascribed to their sexual preferences and styles.

Of course, this blessed existence is only temporary. Castro’s repression descends on Cuba’s arts scene, as beaches, theaters, and literary meetings are banned as potentially counterrevolutionary. His books censored by the government, Arenas is clearly under scrutiny. Watching some of his close friends get jobs with the State Security services, Arenas is deeply wounded by what he interprets as a complete betrayal.

Gay life increasingly grows more dangerous, but Arenas is unwilling to temper his desires. Men find each other on specific beaches, but after one such encounter with two strangers who rob him after sex, Arenas makes the mistake of calling the police. Instead of arresting the thieves, the police are thrilled to have captured a writer as famous as Reinaldo Arenas for homosexual activity. Suddenly, the book’s vision of homosexuality turns. While being gay in Cuba has been a thrill ride, being a homosexual political prisoner would be a nightmarish torture – inside prison, drag queens, homosexuals, and transgender people were endlessly raped and abused with no recourse. Arenas tries to escape, but there is no way for him to get off the island, and eventually, he is again recaptured and sentenced to do time in El Morro, an infamously horrific Havana prison.

Luckily, his escape and recapture make his crime, not homosexuality, but prison-break, so he escapes the special harassment that the non-heteronormative receive. To survive, he is forced to completely hide this part of his identity so that no one in prison ever finds out that he is gay. Arenas spends ten years in prison, facing freezing cells, feces-covered bathroom floors, barely enough food to survive, and endless interrogations trying to extract his confession to being a homosexual and a counterrevolutionary.

Arenas is released just in time to escape Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift, the 1980 mass immigration of ten thousand refugees. Eventually, he makes his way to New York, a city he expects to support dissident writers like him. He is shocked to find that in the U.S., Castro is seen by some as a hero; his disenchantment with the country he thought would be a safe haven is deep. The book pulls no punches in settling scores. One of the most striking things Arenas writes is his indictment of the Nobel Prize committee for never giving the award to Jorge Luis Borges, instead, giving it to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. For Arenas, not only is Marquez not nearly as good a writer as Borges, but the decision seems to completely smack of politics. Marquez is a Castro supporter and friend, who climbed his way to literary heights by backstabbing less politically savvy writers and poets along the way.

The book ends with Arenas revealing that he is dying of AIDS. He committed suicide after finishing the autobiography in 1990.