Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls (Penguin, 1993)
[originally posted 16May2001]
Arenas’ memoir of life in Cuba has recently been made into one of the finest films extant by Julian Schnabel. Schnabel did an excellent job with the book; while his interpretation of the text was loose in places, he managed to capture in images the style of Arenas’ writing.
In other words, if you saw the movie before reading the book, you’re going to be somewhat surprised. Some of Schnabel’s more memorable scenes are mentioned in passing (if at all) in the book, and one of the film’s central sequences, the balloon escape, gets one sentence. Where Arenas and Schnabel intersect is in the lushness, the ability to find celebration and remarkable beauty inside the ugliness of the Castro regime (and, for a few years’ worth, the Batista regime before it).
Arenas’ memoir is also likely to shock more than a few in its sexual explicitness (another aspect Schnabel rather shied away from, which I found a tad surprising while reading the book), but so be it. There is nothing gratuitous about either Arenas’ promiscuity or his literary descriptions of it; it’s no different than using the language of excess to describe the beastliness of a life that involves hand-to-mouth poverty and political censure. And throughout, more than anything (and perhaps this is what makes the book so powerful), Before Night Falls is a celebration, both of Arenas’ life and the lives of many other Cuban writers persecuted as dissidents in the latter half of the twentieth century. **** ½