BOOK REVIEW DESK
By Suzanne Ruta
MONA AND OTHER TALES
By Reinaldo Arenas.
Selected and translated by Dolores M. Koch.
190 pp. New York:
Vintage Books. Paper, $12.
SHORTLY after his arrival in the United States in 1980 in the Mariel boatlift,
the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas used a story called ''The Parade
Ends'' to set down his memories of the mass departure and his survival
strategies in the years that preceded it. As this rhapsodic excerpt shows, his
typewriter was his salvation, his life raft:
''Walls, cathedrals, trees and streets, beaches and faces, jail cells,
huge cells; bare feet, pine stands, starry nights, clouds; a hundred, a thousand,
a million parrots, low stools, a creeping vine; it all comes back . . . saved by
that subtle, constant cadence, by that music, by that endless tat-tat-tat-tat-tat.
. . . My revenge, my revenge. My triumph.''
''The Parade Ends'' is one of the 14 stories (and one essay) in ''Mona
Other Tales,'' a collection spanning three decades -- the whole of Arenas's
brief, intensely prolific writing life. Some appear here in English for the first
time. Others have been printed previously in anthologies or literary magazines.
Especially fascinating is the contrast between his early work, the long lyric riffs
of the early Cuban stories, and the baroque inventions of his 10-year exile in
Miami and, mostly, New York. (Dying of AIDS, Arenas committed suicide in
1990.) Like the early stories, the later ones are also life rafts, but, being made
in the U.S.A., they're more high-tech and full of polished surfaces, concealing
a great mass of sorrow and rage.
The title story is a masterpiece of Arenas's later style that features
Lisa -- only here, operating independently of her portrait, she is a sex fiend
who picks up a young Cuban exile working the night shift as a security guard
at a Wendy's restaurant in Times Square. The young man -- born in 1959, the
first year of the Cuban revolution -- has never heard of Leonardo or his
famous painting, but when he discovers the uncanny resemblance between his
mysterious eyelashless girlfriend and the priceless portrait, on loan for an
exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, he figures it means that she's rich and
can buy him his own Wendy's. Instead, the sinister Elisa, as she calls herself,
lures her victim to a town in upstate New York and threatens him with a
dagger. As they make love, Elisa morphs into Leonardo -- who has survived,
through the vitality of his painting, with his libido intact. Suddenly, the poor
Cuban security guard finds himself having sex with a 500-year-old wreck, a
''sack of bones with the ugliest of beards.''
In this brilliant and raunchy satire, with its comic echoes of Jorge Luis
and Robert Louis Stevenson, Arenas hurls defiance at the AIDS epidemic and
at the imminent diagnosis of his own infection. In effect writing his own
epitaph, he mocks his sexual obsession, his terror of disease, death and decay.
He also mocks the high claims of art and the spurious consolations -- for the
artist, at least -- of posthumous fame. To his Leonardo, artistic immortality just
means a few more generations of hot gay sex.
Mona (Spanish for ''monkey,'' ''drunk'' or ''cutie'') is also Arenas's
unsentimental farewell to the variegated pleasures of New York in the years
before AIDS. Fearing for his life, the poor security guard reports: ''It was not
my family in Cuba that I remembered at that moment but the enormous salad
bar at Wendy's. To me it was like a vision of my life these last few years
(fresh, pleasant, surrounded by people and problem-free).'' Even with a
translation that dulls the edge of Arenas's comedy, ''Mona'' is a gem.
The 1965 story ''The Parade Begins'' is successful in a different way,
as a vivid
incantatory re-creation of the day the Cuban rebels came down out of the hills
in triumph after Fulgencio Batista had fled. In his bland, broad-brush film
version of Arenas's memoir ''Before Night Falls,'' Julian Schnabel uses a
passage from this early work, with its rhythmic forward drive, as the
voice-over to a montage of film clips reporting on Fidel Castro's first days in
But Arenas's protagonist isn't celebrating with the excited crowds. Instead,
distances himself from the revelry -- and in particular from his conformist
family, whose cringing fear has suddenly given way to showy enthusiasm. The
story ends with the protagonist alone in the shower, coolly washing away the
dust raised by the raucous crowds. Physical attraction (to a rebel leader) is
real; flowing water is real. But politics is false, the sum total of many small
hypocrisies and betrayals.
Another of the collection's strongest entries is ''The Glass Tower,'' a
story that again shows Arenas in his arch later mode. As the story opens,
sudden celebrity is forcing an exiled Cuban novelist, newly arrived in Miami, to
neglect his fictional characters. At first they sulk, but later they too succumb
and join the snobbish glitterati. The story's momentum comes not from the
rhythms of its sentences but from Arenas's glee in pursuing an idea to
outrageous lengths. Not only are the characters a bunch of phonies, but even
their mansion is a cardboard stage set, dismantled before our very eyes.
''If exile -- that is to say, freedom -- teaches us anything, it's that
does not lie in being happy but in being able to choose our misfortunes,''
Arenas says in a story that didn't make it into this book. The misfortune of
choice in these stories is the loneliness of a dissident and visionary. Many
stories conclude with the hero isolated -- in a jail cell, a shower stall or a
hospital bed (as in the 1965 story ''With My Eyes Closed,'' where a dreamy
8-year-old boy shuts his eyes to blot out the cruelty around him and is
promptly run over by a truck).
Censorship, poverty, prison, exile and a diagnosis of AIDS could not silence
the indomitable Arenas. He spoofs them all -- even mocking another
anticipated obstacle, cavalier treatment of his work by posthumous editors. In
the title story, the security guard writes a desperate plea for help that goes
unheeded in his lifetime but is later published with footnotes from no fewer
than three squabbling editors. This collection, on the other hand, has no
introduction at all. And yet it could have used one: to inform readers, for
example, that ''Mona'' was originally published in Spanish as the centerpiece of
''A Voyage to Havana,'' a triptych about exile and return, or that the 1963
story ''The Empty Shoes'' changed Arenas's life by winning a contest that
resulted in a sinecure at the National Library in Havana, with time to read and
write, at the start of his amazing career.
Suzanne Ruta writes frequently about Latin American literature.
Published: 09 - 30 - 2001 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1