I’m told that I do a lot of reviews of memoirs. I admit it, I do. I find them very interesting. There’s something about reading about real people who triumph over adversity, prejudice or even just their own fears and insecurities that gets to me. Today, I’m reviewing both a memoir and a documentary film about the life of celebrated gay Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas.
Persecuted in is native Cuba under the Castro regime because of his writing and because of his homosexuality (for which he was imprisoned for two years), he flees the country during the Mariel Boat Lift and seeks asylum in the US. He eventually lands in New York City, where he battles an even more sinister foe, AIDS.
The book about his life, Before Night Falls: A Memoir, was penned by Arenas prior to his death. It was translated by Delores M. Koch. The synopsis:
“The shocking memoir by visionary Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas ”is a book above all about being free,” said The New York Review of Books–sexually, politically, artistically. Arenas recounts a stunning odyssey from his poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his suppression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In what The Miami Herald calls his “deathbed ode to eroticism,” Arenas breaks through the code of secrecy and silence that protects the privileged in a state where homosexuality is a political crime. Recorded in simple, straightforward prose, this is the true story of the Kafkaesque life and world re-created in the author’s acclaimed novels.”
The documentary, starring Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas, was produced in 2000 also, along with the book. Sean Penn appears as Arenas compatriot, Cuco Sanchez. The DVD contains an original interview with Arenas who passed from this earth in 1990.
The book ranks well with readers and the DVD with viewers. I took something away from both. The film has been panned by some critics as being from a little to much of a martyr angle under the direction of director Julian Schnabel, but I didn’t find that to be the case. I personally feel that in that time and place (1970s and 80s Cuba under Castro) the depictions of what Arenas meant toward the freedom movement are probably pretty accurate. True, I wasn’t there, but neither were the film critics who seem to “know it all”.