Fata Morgana

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Salt-worn buildings, trailing plainclothesmen, stockpiled sardines, slumbering clerks, mysterious circumstances, willing deviation, bitter exile & the humid, windswept city.


Twenty-seven years have passed since the publication of Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas’ tale of his years in Cuba under the Castro regime and his life in exile in the US. One of the most talented and prolific writers to emerge during the Revolution, Arenas was persecuted for his writings and his homosexuality. He escaped in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and in 1990, dying of AIDS, committed suicide in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Today, Before Night Falls is as urgent and compelling as ever—a portrait of exile and longing, of the anguish and rage of the dispossessed.

Compass Rose

Late on a warm night in 1987, I left Miami for Havana to report on contemporary Cuban writing and see the homeland of Reinaldo Arenas. I’d met Arenas in 1983, when I interviewed him for my comparative literature thesis one fall afternoon at Princeton. The thesis included my translations of some of his work, one of which, a novella entitled “Old Rosa,” was later published in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories (Grove). Persecuted by the Castro regime, Arenas had fled to the US a few years earlier. “I had suddenly become invisible,” he wrote of his years of suffering in Cuba. “[People], perhaps out of mere cowardice, forgot I existed, though we had shared long friendships.” In those years, he saw his “youth vanish without ever having been a free person…I had never been allowed to be a real human being in the fullest sense of the word.…I lived in terror in my country and with the hope of someday being able to escape.”

As the Challenger Airlines plane churned through the predawn darkness toward Havana, I recalled Arenas’ dedication in his novella “The Brightest Star”—“To Nelson, in the air”—in memory of Nelson Rodriguez Leyva, a friend and fellow writer who was executed in 1971, at the age of eighteen, after trying to hijack a Cubana domestic flight to the US. And I remembered the horrifying story told by poet Armando Valladares in Against All Hope, his memoir of the twenty-two years he was imprisoned by the Castro regime. According to a recent New York Times report, Cuba had the greatest number of political prisoners of any country in the world. Some were journalists—not foreign ones, as far as I knew, but I’d heard that foreign reporters were sometimes denied entry, expelled or detained on arrival.

In about half an hour, the lights of the island came into view and we began our descent.


It was so difficult to catch what people were saying that I began to wonder if I was getting hard of hearing—but then I realized that most of my conversations were in crowded rooms, in private offices with the doors open to noisy corridors.


What I’d forgotten—or been unable to imagine—on the way to Havana was that somewhere among the horror stories would lie another story. It was the melancholy beauty of the city that surprised me most. The pastel, salt-worn buildings with iron gratings over the windows and enclosed leafy patios; the restless, encircling sea. Men with slicked-back hair cruised the streets in vintage Dodges and Cadillacs. Women in sleeveless tops, cotton skirts, and sandals stood waiting for the bus. At the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana, lovers strolled along stone arcades, a pharmacy sold medicines in white ceramic bottles painted with blue flowers, and for five centavos, mineral water poured from a creamy porcelain jar. I bought a Granma newspaper from a vendor outside my hotel and noticed it was the previous day’s edition. “Da lo mismo,” the man said, his leathery face unsmiling. It doesn’t make any difference.

Havana was young men and women in military fatigues, people calling me Compañera (comrade). It was an evening at the ballet, where a man gave me a rose and a note: We are stockpiling sardines. It was flea-bitten, emaciated dogs; people waiting in line all night to buy deodorant and women asking if I could spare them a lipstick; impromptu salsa jam sessions, men drumming on soda cans or against walls; the poet Eliseo Diego reading me his translation of Yeats’ “When You Are Old” one heat-stunned afternoon. An American couple who, sure their hotel room was bugged, found a cluster of wires under the carpet and cut them, at which point the chandelier in the room below crashed to the floor. It was Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s house, where everything was kept just as he’d left it in 1960: the typewriter, the visor he wore while writing, the tombstones for his cats. It was a bookstore near the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton) where the book of the week was Arthur Eaglefield Hull’s La armonía moderna: su explicación y aplicación (Modern Harmony: Its Explanation and Application; © 1915). In dilapidated mansions converted to offices, employees slept on desks under performance charts with tattered gold paper stars glued to them; in stores, clerks slumbered on top of the merchandise. At restaurants, waiters ignored you, chatting and laughing amongst themselves, and—if they ever did get around to taking your order—almost nothing on the menu was available.

Over ice cream at the Coppelia (an open-air ice-cream parlor with staggeringly long lines), or chop suey and beer at Mandarin restaurant, or cocktails at the Bar Azul (where a window behind the bar provided an underwater view of the pale limbs of swimmers in the pool), I talked to writers. The older, well-known ones, many of whom had, like Arenas, at first supported the Revolution, were long gone. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, no longer allowed to publish in Cuba, had been in exile in Europe since the mid-sixties. José Lezama Lima, censured by the regime for the homosexual passages in his novel Paradiso, had died in 1976, and Virgilio Piñera, jailed and ostracized for his political views and homosexuality, died under mysterious circumstances in 1979. Heberto Padilla left Cuba in 1980 after being imprisoned for criticizing the Revolution and forced to denounce friends and family.


The pastel, salt-worn buildings with iron gratings over the windows and enclosed leafy patios; the restless, encircling sea.


The newer writers I spoke with, mostly men, were in their twenties and early thirties. Some, like Arenas, were originally from the countryside, and said that in pre-Revolutionary Cuba, their talent would never have been discovered, not least because the literacy rate was only about seventy-five percent, especially in rural areas. Before the Revolution, they told me, being a writer was something to be ashamed of—there were hardly any bookstores, and it was almost impossible to make money writing. But now writers were well-respected, bookstores could be found in even the smallest towns, and publishing was subsidized by the state. Writers were free to write whatever they wanted: instead of writing only about things like the heroes of the Sierra Maestra, the literacy campaign, the Bay of Pigs, the adjustment of the bourgeois to the new society, they were now writing science fiction, spy novels, horror, erotica.

“If people aren’t writing what they want to, that’s their problem,” one writer told me. “No themes are taboo in the way they used to be. We’re writing about sex, divorce, problems with the system.” The dark days of censorship, middle-of-the-night house searches and arrests, were over. “For a book to be published,” another writer explained, “it has to be good. If people aren’t getting published, it’s because their work isn’t good enough.” But the one thing you could not do, he said, was criticize the Revolution. Problems within the Revolution, yes, but not the Revolution itself. In a speech made soon after his triumph, Castro had insisted that artists were entitled to freedom of expression; the only caveat was that this expression must accord with the aims of the Revolution. “¡Dentro de la Revolución, todo!” Castro thundered. “¡Contra la Revolución, nada!” Within the Revolution, everything! Against the Revolution, nothing!

Almost everyone was kind, funny, eager to talk and, as we got to know each other, more and more willing to deviate from the party line. “It’s a question of maintaining a delicate balance between being honest with yourself and passing the censors,” one writer explained. “To tell you the truth, it’s stifling here. I feel like I’m suffocating.” People were desperate for books and magazines: one journalist offered me anything I wanted from his library if I would send him reading materials from the States. “I don’t understand the US and el bloqueo,” he said, referring to the American embargo against Cuba, in effect since 1960. “If I were Ronald Reagan, I’d be sending everything I could to Cuba: books, magazines, movies.”


In Havana, I understood something new about this power, how it could allow us to undertake—like medieval pilgrims who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem—our own road to Jerusalem, wherever we may be.


Important matters were never discussed on the telephone. People worried that someone might be listening, that they might be reported for saying something “counter-revolutionary.” I spent long windy evenings at houses with the doors and windows left open to keep the neighbors from getting suspicious. It was so difficult to catch what people were saying that I began to wonder if I was getting hard of hearing—but then I realized that most of my conversations were in crowded rooms, in private offices with the doors open to noisy corridors.

With each day, I felt more nervous and exhausted. It was the disjunction: how to reconcile the island’s brutal government with the warmth of the people and the beauty of the surroundings? I was followed everywhere by plainclothesmen and the security police. Trained by the East Germans, the police were easy to spot in their blue uniforms and caps, handguns at their hips. “Everybody is scared of them,” one writer told me. “They’re so smart. I don’t understand it; they know everything. It seems like they even know what you’re thinking.”

When I asked people about Arenas, I was told of his arrest in 1973, that he’d been imprisoned for paying a minor to engage in homosexual activity. (“He wasn’t arrested for writing against the Revolution,” one writer told me, “but for soliciting a minor. You would do the same in your country.”) Publicly, the people I talked to dismissed Arenas as suffering from mental problems: “I knew Reinaldo when he was here,” said one writer. “There was always something funny about him, like he was a little off in the head.”


In Havana, people were in exile in their own country. There was un anhelo en los ojos, a yearning in people’s eyes—a readiness, a heaviness, a hope.


But privately, he was greatly admired. On a street corner one evening, a writer told me he’d devoured Arenas’ Termina el desfile (The Parade Ends), a story about a young man’s disillusionment with the Revolution, on a deserted late-night bus run when a friend loaned it to him for two hours. “None of Cuba’s writers today,” another writer said, “comes close to Reinaldo.”

Arenas had told me in our interview a few years earlier that all of his writing was one long book, fragments of a single dreamlike, hallucinatory world: “I’ve never been interested in telling a story in a purely anecdotal or linear way. ‘Realist’ literature is, to me, the least realistic, because it eliminates what gives the human his reality, his mystery, his power of creation, of doubt, of dreaming, of thinking, of nightmare.”

In Havana, I understood something new about this power, how it could allow us to undertake—like medieval pilgrims who couldn’t travel to Jerusalem—our own road to Jerusalem, wherever we may be.

Compass Rose

The days passed in the humid, windswept city. Havana came to life well before dawn, buses and trucks lurching along dark streets, diesel fumes wafting through windows left open to the tropical night. The sun beat down. It rained, silver sheets of water swaying in a wraithlike dance. Storms tossed the palms and whipped the sea into a frenzy. Great waves surged over the seawall along the Malecón promenade extending five miles from the harbor. The freeing, imprisoning sea was everywhere: you could see it, taste it, feel it on your skin. What was it like to live surrounded by water? The state of suspension, of being adrift, of forever traveling and never arriving. Walking along the Malecón, I watched ships on the horizon: it took time to understand whether they were going out or coming in.

Only ninety miles away was Key West, the USA. If you looked hard and long enough, it rose like a fata morgana, one of the mirages that appear over deserts and oceans, a mirror of something that lies beyond the horizon. Cubans tried to escape on inner tubes, on rafts made of wood and lashed-together oil drums, in homemade boats and even, once, in a Chevy truck with a propeller attached. At the mercy of nature, of the ocean currents that would carry them to freedom or return them to their sorrows, some made it; others drowned or were caught.

“Those who are critical should have left Cuba when they had the chance,” people told me. (But there was a joke circulating in Havana: if a flotilla of boats sailed up to the Malecón to take people away, not even a cat would be left in the city.) Still, while defectors were called gusanos, or “worms,” there was a certain compassion for them because they could never return to their homeland. The prospect of being dépaysé seemed to be enough to convince many to remain. Again and again, people told me they wouldn’t leave if they had the chance: their parents were getting old, they had a sick brother, they couldn’t live without their family and friends. They’d also heard the cautionary tales about people who’d made it to Miami, New York, Chicago, but were living in the margins, jobless and lonely. In Havana, people were in exile in their own country. There was un anhelo en los ojos, a yearning in people’s eyes—a readiness, a heaviness, a hope.


Havana came to life well before dawn, buses and trucks lurching along dark streets, diesel fumes wafting through windows left open to the tropical night.


At night, Havana was dark because of Castro’s austerity measures. Walking around, I felt as if I’d wandered into a state of siege or a de Chirico dreamscape. But even though the city was often deserted, it felt crowded, like no one had ever left. The doorways and narrow streets were alive with shadowy figures and voices. “Every person who lives outside his context is always a bit of a ghost,” Arenas had told me that fall afternoon at Princeton, “because I am here, but at the same time I remember a person who walked those streets, who is there, and that same person is me. So sometimes I really don’t know if I am here or there.” In his last days in his Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, Arenas wrote, “I have realized that an exile has no place anywhere, because there is no place, because the place where we started to dream, where we discovered the natural world around us, read our first book, loved for the first time, is always the world of our dreams.”


Ann Tashi Slater contributes to The New YorkerThe Paris Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Catapult, Tin House, Guernica, Granta, Tricycle, AGNI and others. She speaks at Princeton, Columbia, Oxford, The American University of Paris, the Asia Society and The Rubin Museum of Art, and recently finished a memoir about reconnecting with her Tibetan roots. See her New Yorker interview with Reinaldo Arenas and her translation of Arenas’ work. Listen to the June 30, 2021, Nation of Writers podcast episode about Arenas that she appeared on here. This essay was first published by The Paris Review (March 4, 2014).

Lead image: tiago claro on Unsplash
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