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Before Night Falls

Reinaldo Arenas <em>Serpent's Tail, 318pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 1852428082

This memoir, reissued to accompany Julian Schnabel's new film (reviewed by Charlotte Raven in the NS, June 25), was first published in 1990 after the death of the gay Cuban novelist and dissident Reinaldo Arenas. Raised in rural poverty by his jilted mother, Arenas found solace in the natural world. The absent father of his early childhood is replicated in the figure of Fidel Castro, under whose regime Arenas is brutally persecuted once his own revolutionary fervour fades: he is frequently beaten, betrayed, imprisoned, or on the run. He attempts suicide by slitting his wrists, hanging himself and taking an overdose, but each time recovers. His thoughts soon return to sex, which is both his way of asserting himself and the very reason he is victimised. Arenas had a frenzied desire for absolute physical and mental freedom, to be reached through promiscuity, writing and hallucinogenic drugs. In 1980, he escaped to the US on a boat, leaving behind a Castro-led Cuba which, in this highly subjective, imaginative work, is entirely malevolent.

Although free from physical danger, the absolute freedom and happiness that Arenas sought was not to be found in America. Ravaged by Aids, he committed suicide in New York. His last act was to write a suicide note to Castro, blaming him for everything.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Just you wait until I grow up