Critics worldwide have praised Reinaldo Arenas's writing. His extraordinary memoir, Before Night Falls, was named one of the fourteen "Best Books of 1993" by the editors of The New York Times Book Review and has now been made into a major motion picture.
The Color of Summer, Arenas's finest comic achievement, is also the fulfillment of his life's work, the Pentagonía, a five-volume cycle of novels he began writing in his early twenties. Although it is the penultimate installment in his "secret history of Cuba," it was, in fact, the last book Arenas wrote before his death in 1990. A Rabelaisian tale of survival by wits and wit, The Color of Summer is ultimately a powerful and passionate story about the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of political and sexual repression.
Release date: June 1, 2001
Publisher: Penguin Books
Print pages: 496
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The Color of Summer
In May of 1980, the Cuban dissident poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943–1990) arrived in Key West, Florida, after a harrowing five-day sea voyage on a pleasure craft named the San Lázaro.Having thus completed his own Mariel “exodus” that should have taken no more than seven hours, he expected to be welcomed by the American intellectual community that had hailed his works, published abroad while he was still in Cuba. He did not realize how parsimoniously the title of dissident was meted out to foreign authors (who ever heard of a dissident American author?) by the U.S. intellectual community and its publishers. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, “dissident” was a term customarily restricted to certain, and only certain, Soviet and Eastern European authors, the qualifications for which have never been revealed by Washington insiders or the then budding media conglomerates. Latin American authors were not dissidents but “exiles.” Cuban exiles, Haitian exiles, Dominican exiles, Chilean exiles, Argentine exiles. Manuel Puig (Argentina) was not a dissident writer; Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia) was. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn (USSR); but not Manlio Argueta (El Salvador). And especially not Cubans, writers or otherwise—Gusanos (worms), escoria(dregs), agentes del CIA (CIA agents), perhaps. Reinaldo did not know that in America he would become, not a celebrity, but an invisible man; that he would vanish, disappear.
There is an old saying of the Cold War, first told me by Carlos Franqui, one of the early revolutionaries who joined Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra to organize and direct Radio Rebelde: “In Communism and in Capitalism, they kick you in the ass,” he said. “But the difference is, under Communism, you have to smile and say, Thank you; whereas under Capitalism, at least you can scream.” Well, Reinaldo Arenas had come to scream . . .
In time, of course, Arenas would learn that when you scream without a microphone, nobody hears you, except maybe the next-door neighbor, who calls the landlord who calls the police, to have you evicted from your 43rd Street, rat-infested, New York City apartment. In the meantime, professors at famous American universities began expunging his novels from their syllabuses. Newspapers would select reviewers who had just come back from their latest two-week junket in Havana, all expenses paid by the Revolution, to learn how Utopia thrived in “the first free territory of the Americas.” While Reinaldo was living in a police-patrolled, rent-controlled Hell’s Kitchen apartment, the neighboring New York Times published a Sunday magazine cover story on “Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin America.” The theme of the piece was, of course, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, its pros and cons in the minds of the Latin American intelligentsia. Incorporating extended interviews with, among other authors, García Márquez of Colombia (pro-Fidel), Octavio Paz of Mexico (anti-Fidel), and Julio Cortázar of Argentina (frequent-flier on Cubana de Aviación, though his books never accompanied him), the most telling aspect of the entire piece was what was untold, naturally. Not a single Cuban intellectual, either inside or outside of Cuba, had been asked his opinion on the subject. Reinaldo wrote a letter of protest to the editor, which was never published. He did not exist.
In Germany, one of Arenas’s publishers sponsored a Latin American festival, to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1985, to which neither he, nor the Cuban novelist and essayist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (also in exile, and under contract to the same publisher) were invited. One of the editors of the publishing house was, yes, traveling back and forth to Cuba, learning about the Revolution. It seems that UNEAC (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) had insisted it would only send its authors if no gusanos were invited. None were, but the promised shipment of genuine intellectual puros never showed up either. As Cabrera Infante would say, Holy Smoke!
Curiously, even the published versions of Reinaldo’s—and Guillermo’s—works became extremely difficult to find. Their Spanish publisher “couldn’t even give them away.” Still, when bookstores ordered copies, they consistently received notices that the publisher was “temporarily out of stock.” Arenas had also been told by his French publisher, shortly after his escape from Cuba, that his translator (the most famous in all of France) was just too busy to translate his remaining works; a few years later Reinaldo received a disheartened letter from that same translator asking why, after so many years of faithful service, the author had no longer wanted him as his translator. Reinaldo screamed. Nobody heard . . .
How different it had been in Cuba. In 1965, a then twenty-two-year-old Reinaldo Arenas had won second prize for the manuscript of his first novel, Celestino Before Dawn, in an annual competition for best fiction sponsored by UNEAC in Havana. With a truly incantatory blend of the prosaic and the lyrical, a young boy “sings” the tale of his own awakenings, sexual and poetic, to the world about him through the irreverent promptings of his (imagined?) cousin Celestino. The novel would be published in 1967, selling out within a week, but would never be reissued inside of Cuba again. (It was eventually rewritten in exile as Singing from the Well. The first version is rumored to have been recently republished in Havana.)
In 1966, heralded as a young prodigy of the Revolution and acknowledged by such luminaries as the Cuban literary “giant,” José Lezama Lima, for the baroque pyrotechnics of his style, his wit, and (more discreetly) his libido, Arenas improvidently entered the manuscript of a second novel in the next annual competition. Improvidently, because with Hallucinations he quite daringly recast the life of the historical Fray Servando into fiction, updating this Mexican pícaro’s exploits with salacious detail and political innuendo.
On December 12, 1794, the iconoclastical friar, Servando Teresa de Mier (1763–1827), renowned for the brilliance of his oratory, his wit, and his intellect, had delivered a heretical sermon at the Cathedral of Mexico City. The heresy was in suggesting, however obliquely, that the aboriginal Americans might have already been blessed with a good Christian “education” prior to the Spanish Conquest—by the Apostle Thomas, whom Servando believed to be revered by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl(the Plumed Serpent). Immediately, the incorrigible Servando was banished to Spain, tried, and imprisoned. The balance of his life was spent in jail or in flight, harassed by the Holy Inquisition, hounded by the Spanish authorities, escaping dungeons, wandering in exile. The infamous sermon had wreaked havoc on the course of his life, though fortunately it would provoke his final revenge: the writing of his fantastic memoirs.
His, too, had been an age of revolutions (1776, in America; 1789, in France) and conflicting fanatical fervors, throughout Europe and Latin America. The powers of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire had been foundering on both continents. There were many Inquisitions, not all of them religious. Eighteenth-century Rationalism, in its quest for ideological Purities (whether atheistic or clerical, republican or monarchical), seemed bent upon cleansing the Body Politic of the Past, or of the Future.
Arenas’s astonishing fictionalization of Servando’s life in his Hallucinations did win him another “second” prize—but, this time, as something of an anomaly: there would be no first prize. Two jurors (one of them, the Cuban poet Virgilio Piñera) had voted in favor of his novel; two jurors (one of them, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier) had voted against it. The irony was that, despite his strong objections to the Arenas manuscript, Carpentier could find no substitute worthy of the prize. Yet, so great was the venerable novelist’s prestige (Had not Fidel appointed him cultural attaché to an embassy in Paris?), or perhaps his spite (Was he not the inventor of “marvelous reality” in fiction?), that with a simple wave of his magical-realist baton he liquidated the category: Hallucinations was awarded “first honorable mention.”
Never published in Cuba, it had to be smuggled abroad. Translations of the novel soon appeared, to critical acclaim, in half a dozen languages. In France, it was nominated for another prize—the Prix Médicis, for best foreign novel of the year (1969). Here was a brilliantly inventive, comic novel written by a Latin American Gorky, a Cuban peasant raised from the stark brutality of his impoverished childhood in rural Oriente Province, from an island once ruled by a capitalist dictator he had helped to overthrow, joining the rebels in the Sierra Maestra as a young teenager, a rural foundling whom now the Cuban revolution had generously lifted out of ignorance and, behold: turned into a writer!
Meanwhile, at home curious things began to happen to Reinaldo Arenas, the writer, who could no longer publish in Cuba. Like Fray Servando before him, he found himself caught in an age of wars and revolutions, militant fervors and fanatical conflicts of ever spiraling dimensions. For here was another man of letters from another splendid Age—that of Twentieth-century Progress—who had too late realized that the old Colonial Spanish interdiction against fiction (and Eros) in the New World, had yet to be lifted in his utopian Caribe paradise. “You and I are the same person,” he had prophetically warned Fray Servando, in a prefatory letter to Hallucinations—or warned himself.
In 1970, Arenas was sent by UNEAC as a military recruit to a rural sugar mill, where he was expected to make his contribution to Fidel Castro’s improbable goal of a ten-million-ton harvest by cutting cane and writing a book in praise of the experience. Instead, he composed the furiously inspired rebuttal to that inhuman experiment: El Central (A Cuban Sugar Mill), which was also smuggled out of the country. It was during this period that the idea of a pentagonía began also to mature in the author’s mind: five novels or “agonies,” each depicting the life of a poet, who would live, write, suffer, and die, only to be reborn in the following novel. Together they would comprise “the secret history of Cuba.” Arenas had nothing but contempt for “visible” history, as blind as “a file of more or less chronologically ordered manila folders.”
The first volume (Singing from the Well), the poet as inspired wild-child, had already been written and published as Celestino. The second volume, The Palace of the White Skunks, smuggled out in 1972, recounts the adolescent dreams of a sexually ambivalent Fortunato, raised in a house of frustrated aunts, a tyrannical mother, and two ferociously primal grandparents. When the family abandons the farm and moves to Holguín, where his furiously taciturn grandfather hopes to open a grocery to put some food on the table, Fortunato decides to join the rebels in the Sierra Maestra, only to be captured while clumsily attempting to wrest a rifle from a Batista recruit, after which he is tortured and executed by government soldiers on the eve of the Revolution’s (January, 1959) triumph. Here, Arenas has created a haunting family portrait, combining the lyrical empathy of a Tennessee Williams toward his characters’ troubled lives with a radically fractured narrative that pays dark tribute less to Faulkner than to the schizophrenia of life under any dictatorial extreme.
The third volume, Farewell to the Sea, is arguably Reinaldo’s finest novelistic achievement within the Pentagonía. It had to be written three times, the first in 1969, when it was destroyed by a friend who was supposed to be hiding it away, chapter by chapter, as Reinaldo wrote it. A second version was confiscated by the authorities in 1972; and the present version, smuggled out in 1974, while Reinaldo was in prison. It was published in a (purposefully?) mangled and truncated version in Spain, in 1982, which quickly went out of print. There eventually followed an incompetently translated and dreadfully edited version in France, in 1987, which languished for years in a prohibitively expensive edition. That same year saw an English edition of the work come out here in the States, in Andrew Hurley’s magisterial translation. Until quite recently, this was the only readable—or available—version of the work in any language.
The final draft of the novel inevitably reflected Arenas’s growing desperation, as a writer and as a homosexual. He had been arrested in the summer of 1973, on trumped up charges of “seducing minors.” The experience is related factually in his memoir Before Night Falls, and comically fictionalized in The Color of Summer, the fourth volume of the Pentagonía. Suffice it to note that the two masculine minors, who had actually stolen Arenas’s underwater gear at the beach, turned out to be well above age and recanted their testimony at the trial. A contemptuous judge still managed to find him guilty of counterrevolutionary activities, in part through Arenas’s UNEAC file (signed by, among other cultural commisars, the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén) which confirmed that he had smuggled unauthorized manuscripts out of the country. After a bizarre escape (rivaling even Fray Servando’s bravado) from the local prison near the beach, he was finally recaptured and sent to various prisons and forced-labor camps (for “re-educating” homosexuals), including the notorious El Morro prison, where his semifictional mentor had been imprisoned two centuries earlier.
Farewell to the Sea is set, like the previous novel, on the eve of an anticipated triumph that will produce unmitigated disaster: Fidel’s trumpeted goal, for 1970, of the ten-million-ton harvest. The novel is completely divided, one might say severed, into two parts: the second part composed of six furious cantos, sung in silence to the ocean by Hector, a poet who no longer writes, or is no longer allowed to, away on a six-day vacation at the beach. He has endured the forced-labor of the cane fields as a “volunteer.” He has entered a sham-marriage (though the union is not devoid of genuine, sometimes heartbreaking affection), and even fathered a child, in order to avoid the charge of homosexuality. At the beach he has an affair with a young boy who on the sixth day mysteriously drowns. The first part of the novel is told in prose by Hector’s wife, who genuinely loves him but does not seem to be his intellectual or emotional equal. She often feels awkward with him; he rarely talks to her anymore, finds her mawkish and sentimental. She recognizes intuitively what he is, but is still hopelessly drawn to him, perhaps in part because of the very horror of the death-in-life that totalitarianism has imposed upon them both. And yet, in her silent musings—upon the ocean, the beach, the groves of trees, the flight of birds, and even the young boy who has seduced (is seduced by?) her husband—which fill the six days of their holiday, she reaches a level of lyricism unsurpassed by her broken husband. Each of them carries, sealed up in themselves, “a secret history” that, by the end of the novel, destroys their illusory existence.
Arenas had entered a similarly arranged marriage, in a vain attempt to ward off the sexual witch hunt that grew to a Stalinist frenzy in the Havana of the late sixties and early seventies, until the grotesqueness of it finally outraged the intellectual fellow travelers of Europe and the Americas. It must be remembered that, in those days, even Manuel Puig’s now classic 1976 novel Kiss of the Spider Woman was artistically frowned upon by his previous Latin American admirers to the extent that it placed in the same prison cell an aging, reactionary homosexual and a homophobic young marxist—just to see what might happen.
From the time Arenas finally settled in New York in 1981 until his death, he had one incredible stroke of publishing good fortune. He found an editor, Kathryn Court, who, despite the prevailing intellectual climate, not to mention the financial prospects, short term or long, promised to publish the entire Pentagonía in English. This gave Reinaldo hope and carried him through the darkest hours of his struggle with AIDS. When he first tested positive for HIV, in 1987, he prayed to a photograph of “Saint” Virgilio Piñera he kept above his desk, asking him for another three years to be able to finish the remaining two volumes of his Pentagonía.
Saint Virgilio was listening. In the late 1980s, a barely legible manuscript of the fifth volume, The Assault, turned up in New York and Reinaldo set to work deciphering and revising it. A dark parable of absurdist dystopia, in the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Arenas’s savagely comic tale is told by a torturer, a slavish, venomous agent from the Bureau of Counterwhispering. Indeed, his mind is so twisted by the nihilistic mechanics of a society that has been finally reduced to an indestructible system of destruction, he can only discover a kind of warped solace in the thought of somehow destroying his own mother. This ferocious quest for a kind of incestuously murderous exorcism takes him, and the reader, though every social layer of this hell. The chapter headings, borrowed from the chapter headings of a variety of other literary and esoteric works, including some of the author’s, serve to heighten the dissonance of the novel. This was to be the final apocalyptic vision of a revolution gone mad.
Now, Arenas had only the fourth volume to write: The Color of Summer. (Weakened by AIDS, he would be forced to dictate his autobiographical memoir, Before Night Falls.) The novel is a remarkable comic achievement, lending new meaning to the old adage: divide and conquer. For in this Carnivalesque celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution (actually the fortieth, but the dictator Fifo is ever prone to exaggeration), Arenas divides himself into three characters—Gabriel, the dutiful “straight” son; Reinaldo, the famous “persecuted” author; and Skunk in a Funk, the conniving pícaro “faggot”—in order to take his pleasure, and his revenge, while writing and rewriting and, yes, rewriting a novel called The Color of Summer. The book gives the illusion of being a slapstick hodgepodge of high and low styles, of comical vignettes skewering friend and foe alike, mixed with tongue twisters, letters, anecdotes, lists, a play at the beginning, and an author’s “Forward” seemingly stuck at random in the middle. By the end, the island has been gnawed away from its rocky base and floats off into the Gulf Stream until it finally sinks.
This deceptively casual structure was born of necessity: Arenas did not know exactly how long he had to live. So each little vignette is in fact quite carefully structured as a complete entity unto itself, just in case it might suddenly be the last. And the novel was fitted together additively, so that not only the island may be atomized at any moment; so may the book. As Reinaldo suggests in his “Foreword,” he is offering his reader, literally, a comically “cyclonic” or “round” novel, which “. . . never really begins or ends at any particular place; readers can begin it anywhere and read it until they come back to their starting point. . . . But please don’t take that as either a merit or a defect—just a necessity that is intrinsic to the structure of the work.” It is a work of astonishing playfulness and equanimity for an author already ravaged by what he considered to be the first inhuman plague and, most likely, invented by modern science.
On December 7, 1990, Reinaldo Arenas committed suicide in his New York apartment. No longer capable of managing the stairs to his sixth-floor walk-up, terrified of being sent to a public hospital (the previous year, a private hospital had “released” him in the middle of the night—no insurance—with pneumonia), unable to swallow solid foods, he told me: “I’ve lost my country and my language, the meaning of anything I ever wanted to say. Thanks to Virgilio, I’ve managed to finish my books. There’s nothing left.” He was forty-seven.
Two years after his death, Reinaldo’s memoir, Before Night Falls, was published to unprecedented acclaim in France and in Spain, where Vargas Llosa hailed it as “One of the most shattering testimonials ever written . . . on the subject of oppression and defiance.” An American edition soon followed, in a haunting English version by Arenas’s friend Dolores Koch, which The New York Times’s critics selected as one of the Best Books of the 1993. Arenas had become one of the greatest dissident authors not just of Cuba, but of the Cold War. Though he hated Castro’s Cuba, he could be just as scathing about Batista’s. A passionate anti-communist, he showed little love for American intellectuals, “who think about nothing but the state of their bank accounts.” He described Miami as “a town that I do not wish to remember.” He found New York sex a mechanical and dirty transaction, and the brutish pedestrians obsessed with little more than scurrying home to their television sets.
And yet, my friend, this is the only place in the world where one can survive—I say that with all my heart, because I say it without illusions.
He wrote this in a letter to himself, or rather Gabriel did, in The Color of Summer.
Not many dissident authors have survived the Cold War. Some of course were destroyed by it, never returning from the various concentration camps that have dotted the maps and graveyards of the twentieth century. Others became as irrelevant as the posturing of opposing forces that have settled back, winners or losers, into the wholly calculated pursuit of strictly capital ambitions. Their books, discarded by publishers and libraries, could still be picked up for a time, in those last few years of the millennium, at used bookstores or the second-hand peddlers’ tables often seen on parts of upper Broadway or lower Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan.
Does a dissident author ever survive of his dissidence? In rereading the Pentagonía to write this essay, I found a different writer than the one I had experienced in the past. When I first read Reinaldo Arenas, as he was editing and rewriting his works, I had been overwhelmed by the discordant power of his dazzling invective. Now, some ten years after his death, I am continually astonished at the pathos and beauty of his creations. I sense that I am in the hands of a writer of enormous confidence, empathy and resilience. I realize, for example, that I have never read another novelist who writes so lyrically or intimately about the sea—not about life at sea, like Melville or Conrad, but about the sea itself. Throughout his works, Arenas has scattered one invocation after another, in every conceivable condition of light, hour, and weather, summoning the always shifting colors and textures, the ceaseless change and endless repetition of his vast, beloved sea. I understand now why it finally took a painter, Julian Schnabel, to make a film worthy of him, with Before Night Falls. For Arenas himself was a luminous painter of the human soul; and, to the very end, used his gifts to uncover the poetry of a dark and darker world.
THE FLIGHT OF GERTRUDIS GÓMEZ DE AVELLANEDA
A light comedy in one act
SETTINGS : The Antilles and their surrounding waters (the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea)
The Malecón in Havana.
TIME : July 1999.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE :
On the sea: Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda
On the Malecón:
(In order of appearance)
Fifo (played by a double)
Delfín Proust (also in Key West)
Dulce María Leynaz
Tina Parecía Mirruz
Karilda Olivar Lubricious
H. Puntilla (also on the sea and in Key West)
José Zacarias Talet
A chorus of rehabilitated prostitutes
Paula Amanda, a.k.a. Luisa Fernanda
Odiseo Ruego (also in Key West)
José Lezama Lima
Julián del Casal
Chorus on the Malecón in Havana:
Made up of minor poets such as Cynthio Métier, Retamal, José Martínez Mata, Pablo Amando, Miguel Barniz, and a hundred or so others; also including members of the Comité para la Defensa de la Revolución (a.k.a. the Watchdog Committee), midgets, high-ranking military officers, and anybody else that’s on the Malecón at the time.
In Key West:
(In order of appearance)
José María Heredia
Raúl Kastro (also on the Malecón)
Fernando González Esteva
A chorus of children
Chorus of poetesses:
Angel Gastaluz (This character possesses, by papal bull, the gift of omnipresence, so throughout the work s/he is able to be in several places at the same time if s/he so desires.)
The Mayor of Miami
The President of the United States
A leading politician
The female editor of a fashion magazine
Kilo Abierto Montamier
A prizewinning poetess
A congressman from the state of Ohio
The Attorney General
The Bishop of Miami
Ye-Ye, a.k.a. PornoPop, The Only Remaining Go-Go Fairy
Queen in Cuba (who also possesses the gift of omnipresence, bestowed by St. Nelly)
A society lady from Miami
An old woman
A female professor of literature
Another poetess (who’s awarded herself her own prize)
Alta Grave de Peralta
A woman wearing a great deal of jewelry
A university type
The director of a Cuban museum (in exile)
Chorus in Key West:
Three thousand poetesses, professors of Latin, hundreds of aspirants to the office of the presidency of Cuba, and other notable politicians; sometimes includes the entire population of Key West, sometimes subdivided into small choruses.
CREDITS, HAVANA LOCATION:
Makeup and Choreography:
Music: Cuban National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Manuel Gracia Markoff, a.k.a. Yechface and the Marquesa de Macondo.
KEY WEST LOCATION :
Makeup and choreography:
Kilo Abierto Montamier
Alta Grave de Peralta
Music: The Guadalajara Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Octavio Plá, a.k.a. (according to lies told by Tomás Borge) Fray Nobel.
The action begins in Havana, and as the curtain rises Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, who has been brought back to life on Fifo’s orders so that she will be able to take part in the festivities honoring Fifo’s fiftieth year in power, escapes in a little fishing boat and heads for Florida. Learning instantly about the escape, Fifo sends out orders for her arrest, but realizing almost in the same breath that an arrest would cause an international scandal, he orders the people of Cuba to stage an act of repudiation against the poetess, while secretly ordering his trained sharks and diligent midgets to do everything in their power to block her flight. The act of repudiation begins with the appearance of a group of eminent poets who are still on the Island, some of whom have been brought back to life especially for this event. The idea is that all these poets will be able to persuade Avellaneda not to leave the country. On Fifo’s orders, they will throw at the fleeing poetess large quantities of rotten eggs, which thousands of midgets have piled along the edge of the ocean. Meanwhile, although at first it isn’t clear where Avellaneda is headed (the part about “headed for Florida” was a taunt flung by Radio Aguado), the Cuban poets in exile, including some brought back to life for this event, decide to have a huge demonstration on the southernmost tip of the United States (i.e., Key West) in order to encourage Avellaneda and show their moral support for her. In addition to reciting a great number of poems dedicated to her, they shower her with candy bars, California apples, bonbons, and even fake pearls.
AVELLANEDA: (On the Malecón in Havana, throwing a small, frail boat into the water)
Pearl of the ocean! Star of the West!
Once glorious isle,
now pain in the ass!
I’ve had it up to here with you! Farewell!
I mean, Adios!
And a thousand times adios,
for tell me, how is one supposed
to put up with this mess?
See these big ugly bags under my eyes?
I haven’t slept for days, because
this brilliant sky of yours, no longer does
Night cover with her sable veil—and so I’m off!
Don’t try to stop me! The ubiquitous mob
has forced me to flee my native land.
Adios, once happy homeland, beloved Eden
where even Numero Uno, the head hoodlum,
has to keep one eye on his behind.
No more of this for me; I’ve made up my mind!
(Plus—however far and wide I searched, however hard I tried I never found the man to make me bride.)
Into the boat! Hope swells my ample breast!
Florida awaits. Next stop—Key West!
She clambers into the dinghy and begins to row quickly away. Avellaneda is a heavyset woman swathed in a long black nineteenth-century gown and wearing an equally black veil that covers her face. Upon seeing this bizarre figure, all the sharks swim away, howling— piteously. The midgets also recoil in fright, and then whirl around and head back toward the coast. Fifo has no choice but to trust that the act of repudiation, which he orders to begin at once, will work.
Halisia Jalonzo, entering STAGE LEFT, inaugurates the act of repudiation.She is carrying a huge ostrich egg. The truth is, Jalonzo ought not to be in the part of the ceremony devoted to poets, but once she gets something in her head, honey, nobody can do athing with her—plus, we mustn’t forget that she just had her hundredth birthday, or so they say. Still, it’s not right—and we’ll be sure René Tavernier (R.I.P.), the president of the PEN Club, hears about this.
Go then, witch! Good riddance to bad rubbish!
And don’t come back, ingrate Gertrudis!
(No way this flight is her idea.
Behind it all, I know, is Plizescaya—
my nemesis, the cunning Plizescaya.)
Go—we’ll all be better off without ya!
She raises the huge ostrich egg and throws it into the sea, making an enormous splash (for the first time in years, honey!) and raising columns of water that drench Avellaneda.
AVELLANEDA: (dripping wet, but still rowing; to HALISIA)
The show you make makes crystal clear
that you’re in Fifo’s pay, my dear
whoring, as always, for that “art” of yours.
Some art! You haven’t really danced in years.
Farewell, I leave you in Fifo’s keeping,
in lands of misery and weeping,
while I depart to seek my freedom.
Before I go, though, I just want to say:
it breaks my heart to see you sell yourself this way—
(though at your age, and in the shape you’re in, you kind of have to stay. . .)
but good luck, Halisia, anyway—
and as they say in show biz, sweetie, break a leg!
Oh, and thank you for the egg.
Halisia Jalonzo, an expression of defeat on her face, takes out a huge magnifying glass and peers through it at Avellaneda’s bosom, which swells to ENORMOUS proportions. Unable to control herself, but to herself alone, she speaks these lines:
Go on—paddle off, you decrepit old hag,
leave me here to hold the bag,
an old, blind, crippled, washed-up prima ballerina
that can’t work up the nerve to say what’s really in her. . . .
Just then, one of the muscular midgets gives Virgilio Piñera a nudge (a shove)so he’ll get on with his part of the act of repudiation. The poet, trembling miserably, climbs up on the wall on the Malecón and, looking seaward, quietly muses:
The dratted circumstance of water, water everywhere
exhorts you, dear friend, to flee, to fly—get out of here.
Oh, I wish that I could join you! But this double-crossing queer
(Miss Coco Salas) has been assigned to keep an eye on me, for fear
that I might try it.
So woe is me! I cannot fly! I cannot flee!
And to top it off, they say tonight
Fifo’s thugs are going to take my life.
The order’s out, the die is cast, the time is ripe.
spied upon, spat upon, and hooted,
malnourished, impoverished, barefooted,
watching you sail into the west
while I wait to greet my death,
I raise my glass in tribute to you—
We who are about to die salute you.
(Avellaneda looks back in concern, hesitates.)
No, Gertrudis, don’t look back. Forget I said that, dear—
Don’t let the dratted circumstance of water, water everywhere
get to you. Be you, be free, be all that you can be—
Flee this horrid Island! Flee!—Godspeed!
What’s that old faggot that I’m going to screw tonight muttering?
VIRGILIO PIÑERA: (desperately raising his voice to a shout, and changing his tune)
Don’t go, Avellaneda—take my advice.
You’re better off here by far.
If you go North you’ll pay the price:
here, at least you’re a star.
I beg you—reconsider, dear;
the Island’s awfully nice.
Turn back now—there’ll be no harm to you;
These dwarves will open their arms to you.
God, how could I write such awful lines!
I can’t believe they’re really mine!
But if I don’t try as hard as I can
to lure Avellaneda back again
I’ll never see tomorrow.
But hold on!
—Didn’t Fifo put out a contract on yours truly?
That’s what I was told, so surely
I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t!
And then when I’m dead and they’ve buried me,
that horrid Olga Andreu will pray for me
and Arrufat will grab my dictionary and who knows what they’ll say about me—
and who knows what they’ll say about me—
but screw ’em all—
I’ll be vindicated by History, they’ll see!
Virgilio halfheartedly throws a little-bitty kestrel egg, but as luck would have it, it hits Avellaneda right in the eye. Avellaneda, enraged, turns like the basilisk whose glance is fatal and picks up the anchor out of the bottom of her boat and throws it at the crowd on the Malecón, killing a midget—some say a hundred-headed one.
FIFO: (more enraged yet)
No more delay! Do what I say—
Brought back from the grave for this special day,
this is how she repays us!
No more mercy, no more pleas—
blast her out of the waves!
The broadest spot is the best spot to aim—
do it! Bombs away!
Be sure to shoot for the backside, boys! Death to every traitor!
No, not the backside, seat of inspiration!
Take aim at the fore!
All who read me know my slogan:
I wish all to enter through the front door.
All the participants in the act of repudiation throw rotten eggs at Avellaneda.
No more mercy, no more pleas—
blast her out of the waves!
The backside’s the best spot to aim,
so do it! Bombs away!
If that’s the way it’s going to be,
if that’s the way they’re going to treat me,
then I’m glad I decided not to stay.
Clearly, here there’s no home for me,
so I’ll make my getaway . . .
But if I ever get my hands on that Horcayés
that brought me back from the dead,
when I get through with him he’ll need
the finest seamstress in Key West,
to sew back on his head.
Meanwhile, on my rowing let me concentrate—
I think I’m going to have to paddle with both arms and both
VIRGILIO PIÑERA: (moving away)
Well done! Bravo! Bravo!
and one heel’s crooked on your shoe . . .
Go—there’s nothing for you here.
Suddenly, seeing that Coco Salas is right behind him with a tape recorder, he turns toward the sea and shouts at the top of his lungs:
Where are you going, you ingrate!
Come back—we’ll forgive you! It’s not too late!
AVELLANEDA: (growing farther and farther away from the Malecón and the harbor)
Ingrate! Ungrateful for what?
That parting shot
to my vulnerable backside?
No thanks, you snot—
I’ll take my chances
in New York or Florida or Kansas.
CHORUS: (standing on the wall of the Malecón)
No more mercy, no more pleas—
blast her out of the waves!
The backside’s the best spot to aim,
so do it! Bombs away!
A new barrage of rotten eggs is launched.
AVELLANEDA: (now pulling into the open sea in a hail of rotten eggs)
What ineffable light, what strange happiness!
Night’s mourning is banished from the skies.
The hour’s come round, the artillery thunders;
fire, fire, fire, you murderers,
fire at this trembling bosom!
Meanwhile, back on shore, Delfín Proust arrives. After first making a quick check of himself in a portable mirror that opens like a huge fan, he makes a grand pirouette and leaps up onto the Malecón. He whirls about several times, hops like a frog, opens and closes his arms. Prancing about, he begins his poetic discourse:
Where it should be you that grows
a mahogany tree spreads its wide boughs . . .
I grow old . . .
No longer am I the master of my fear and of the city;
I do as I am told.
Conquered are we all; a baleful light claims victory.
And we all grow old.
Of course, to console me there’s always this:
all that you are giving up, I can enjoy on the Hill of the Cross
where it should be you that grows.
Come back, and I’ll take you personally to Tina Parecía Mirruz.
Delfín Proust tosses a mahogany-tree seed to Avellaneda, and it falls between her breasts. Avellaneda picks out the seed, gazes upon it sadly, and throws it into the sea. Immediately she becomes animated again.
From Betis harbor
along the shore
my little ship
and mahogany seeds
shall never, ever
from my chosen course.
So row, row, kindly oars–
man, for the morn–
ing sun doth rise.
And I hie me to other shores.
The sound of barking is heard. A bulldog appears, walking on its two hind legs with the aid of a huge walking stick. This is the famous Nicolás Guillotina, poet laureate of Cuba, who flaps his enormous ears and shakes his walking stick threateningly at the fleeing poetess.
NICOLÁS GUILLOTINA: (to a tune from Gilbert and Sullivan)
Flee this Island thou shalt not!
The Party, Miss Smarty, calls the shots,
and the Party has decided
that here with us thou shalt abide!
Ta-ra-ra, thou shalt not!
For the Party calls the shots.
Flee this land thou surely shalt not.
Here with us thou must remain.
Thou’rt a woman old and vain
and death on the high seas surely fear,
so let me whisper in thy ear:
Ta-ra-ra, thou shalt not!
For the Party calls the shots.
Flee this land thou surely shalt not.
If I must bide here and flee not
because the Party calls the shots,
what makes you think that you’re so grand, eh?
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!
Ta-ra-ra, thou shalt not!
For the Party calls the shots!
Flee this land thou most surely, most su-u-u-re-ly—shalt NOT!
But then, while the symphony orchestra, in great confusion, plays El son entero, Guillotina, belying his own words, throws down his walking stick and dives into the ocean, trying to overtake the boat in which Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda is fleeing. His ears row like huge outlandish paddle wheels.
CHORUS: (giving the alarm)
Sensemayá the serpent—he’s getting away!
Fifo orders Guillotina pulled from the ocean. IMMEDIATELY. The poet laureate of Cuba, dripping water, is led into Fifo’s presence.
FIFO: (sarcastic, to Guillotina)
Sometimes I think that you’ve forgotten
Just exactly who I am.
You know, Guillotina, you need a lesson.
Midgets—cut off that man’s gams!
The diligent midgets pull out a saw and perform the operation. The poet bleeds all over the Malecón and dies of gangrene. The symphony orchestra playstaps and then a death knell. By order of Fifo, the crowd observes a moment of silence in honor of the deceased poet laureate. Then the orchestra plays a few typically Cuban dances while, on a stage near the Malecón, Halisia dances The Death of the Black Swan.
RAÚL KASTRO: (while a hundred diligent midgets bear away Guillotina’s mortal remains)
What a racket!
I’ll tell you, with all this whoop-de-doo,
I’ll never find a man to string my racket!
The whole army, thinking perhaps that this is a farewell lament for Nicolás Guillotina, repeats, over and over, the lines that Raúl has just spoken—until Fifo orders silence by pulling his finger slowly across his throat. Everyone gets the idea.
That’ll be enough of that, you nance.
No more of this campy fairy shit.
This is a repudiation, not a dance.
The Carnival hasn’t even started yet!
Besides, they’re watching us live on satellite in France—
so cut out the horseplay—quit, I tell you, quit!
Hey, speaking of France, I wish we still had Sartre
to turn our firing squads into art.
But we’ll make do the best we can—
Let’s get this started—Lights, camera, achtung!
Bring on Dulce María Leynaz,
bring on Tina Parecía Mirruz—
this is gonna be delicious!
Oh, and don’t forget Karilda Olivar Lubricious.
Enter Dulce María Leynaz. She climbs the improvised steps that lead up onto the Malecón. She is wearing a long silk gown, white gloves, and a wide-brimmed straw hat to which she has tied a live vulture—the last one on the entire island.
DULCE MARÍA LEYNAZ:
Oh, how the water sparkles in the moonlight!
If I could squeeze it into a fountain streaming,
and toss a little strychnine in—
that’d teach Avellaneda to take flight!
Remember that I am of the aristocracy,
so I love Fifo’s bureaucracy
and consider royal purple very dressy—
appearances, my dear, do truly matter;
why, I even serve my guests cocaine on a lovely silver platter.
Leynaz offers a bag of cocaine to Tina Parecía Mirruz, who steps up onto the Malecón on the arm of Cynthio Métier, who’s steadying her. Tina, with the exquisite humility of a campesina, starts to take the cocaine, but Cynthio stops her.
Stop! You gotta be loca,
girl—that stuff is coca!
Haven’t you learned to just say no? ...
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