I think it must be a lucky find - on a residential street, a box of free books is dumped in front of a house. Most of them are unappetizing, but one is in Spanish, and as I am on verge of being able to read it, I thumb through the book. Tiny chapter, short sentences, perfect for a beginner. I take it home.
I stumble even on the title: Antes que Anochezca: Autobiografía. It takes a dictionary and a grammar book (lesson 8 on subjunctive tense) to figure out that the book is called "Before Night Falls: Autobiography." Though a bit annoyed at this delay, I start reading.
'“I was to die in the winter of 1987.*” (p.9) That is how Reinaldo Arenas, a gay Cuban dissident writer, dying from AIDS, begins his memoir. It is a simple and heart-breaking announcement, to let us know that even at the very beginning, he is already at the end.
The first chapter, ‘The Stones’ begins: “I was two. Naked, standing; I was bending to the ground and passing my tongue over the earth. The first taste I remember is the taste of the earth.” (p.17). By chapter four I have to check and re-check my dictionaries because Arenas is writing about things that got Rumi’s poems expelled from U.S. school curricula, and does so without blushing.
As I keep reading, I realize why so few autobiographers do what Arenas had done – write with beauty, candor, and simplicity of one’s life. It is because pending death (not a far-away scary fantasy of death) removes the imaginary audience. The theatre seats are already empty, and the story has to be written for oneself, to free oneself, before the night falls. So Arenas tells us at the very end, in his final letter. “Cuba will be free. I already am.” (p.343)
Arenas, R. (1992). Antes que Anochezca: Autobiografía. Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, S.A.
*Please note all quotes are my translations.