- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Reinaldo Arenas
Selected and translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch
Vintage, $12 paper, 190 pages

Reinaldo Arenas has recently come to the attention of North American audiences and readers as the author of "Before Night Falls." This memoir, made into a visually arresting film directed by the artist Julian Schnabel, chronicles Arenas' life in Cuba and the United States. Arenas' coming of age just as the revolution of 1959 triumphed, his struggles as a dissident writer and homosexual in an increasingly repressive regime, and his exile in New York and death of AIDS in 1990 are the materials from which he fashioned a complex identity and wrote layered, provocative texts. His career produced novels, collections of stories, and essays that were both deeply political and wrenchingly personal. A posthumously assembled collection entitled "Mona and Other Tales" includes some of each, allowing readers a glimpse of Arenas' lifetime achievement.
The title story, "Mona," a framed story within a story, exhibits some of Arenas' most brilliant skills as a writer. The story within the frame concerns Ramon Fernandez, a Cuban emigre living and working in New York who develops a sexual obsession with a woman he knows only as Elisa, who keeps odd hours and seems to be compulsively drawn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a reader accustomed to the playfulness of magical realism might guess, Elisa is the Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, who for 500 years has kept herself alive by escaping the painting at night and seeking out numerous, intense, anonymous sexual encounters with men.
This tale, redolent with whiffs of Oscar Wilde's "Dorian Gray" and Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" (Elisa, like Orlando, oscillates between genders as well as being 500 years old), points to the seductive but ultimately fatal power of the unknown and the complex relationship of Cuban socialism with European, bourgeois culture and values.
The story which frames this story traces, in bitterly satirical tones, the saga of publication. The narrative, written by Ramon himself, is embedded in a preface and introduction and littered with the footnotes of three different sets of editors from different generations. To trace the story of this story is to follow its journey beginning in 1986 in Ramon's prison cell, to the hands of Daniel Sakuntla, a fellow Cuban who tried but failed to publish it, to the more successful hands of Ismaele Lorenzo and Vicente Echurre who publish it in 1999 and finally to unnamed Editors, who republish the text in 2025.
As these details are revealed so is the petty animosity between editors, bickering over insignificant facts in order to impugn one another and completely missing the point of Ramon's saga. Adding to the bitter chill is Arenas' presence as a character in his own story, as an already deceased friend of one of the editors. This story was written in 1986, four years before Arenas' nonfictional death. Needless to say it is a tale with many possible readings, rich in political, literary, and emotional insight.
The book includes other short stories written in different phases of Arenas' life as well as essays recounting particular moments of Cuban history. Early tales, told from the perspective of a young boy, glow with hope and wonder even as they acknowledge deprivation and hardship. These stories represent magical realism at its most touching, sliding effortlessly between reality and fantasy through exquisitely deployed details.
Interspersed with these stories are more obviously autobiographical essays. "The Parade Begins" and "The Parade Ends," two core essays that dominate this selection, narrate the rise and fall of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. As the titles indicate, Arenas' account focuses not on political or economic determinants but rather on the view from the ground, as experienced by a young man, a family, or a community, with all their concomitant contradictions. Because he is interested in subjectivities, Arenas can draw on some of the same techniques he uses in his fictions. Thus the boundaries between reality and imagination are never clear, as readers witness the smells and noise of crowds (a constant factor in revolutionary Cuba) as well as the horror invoked by lizards that crawl into clothing and violate the most intimate bodily spaces.
These essays transform historical events into messy, ambivalent experiences. In "The Parade Begins" a young man envies the adulatory attention given to the triumphant rebels even as he understands that they have acted brutally or stupidly. "The Parade Ends" recounts a growing marginalization and alienation even as it eulogizes the author's early idealism. The moment the revolutionary regime decided to eject dissidents rather than engage in the futile struggle to control them is a profoundly conflicted moment for Arenas, in which he mourns the loss of his recent life, at once painful, difficult, and familiar. Separately, these texts need to be read carefully. Arenas' subtle yet provocative voice merits close attention. The translator, Dolores Koch, does an admirable job with difficult material, thick with colloquial expressions incomprehensible even to Latin Americans not familiar with Cuban Spanish.
Yet even though each text draws readers in with vibrant language and intriguing contexts, one comes away wondering about this collection as a whole. It is not clear why they were arranged in their particular order, alternating as they do between earlier and later writing. Nor is the choice of pieces obviously apt. In some ways a collection arranged in this manner makes it more likely that a reader will miss the powerful effect that Arenas' work can elicit, the impact that comes from an accretion of related texts, all written around one moment and interrelated thematically and linguistically.
A collection such as "Assault," one of Arenas' final volumes of stories, succeeds through relentless repetition and gradual intensification, through his crafting an arc of fury from beginning to end. There is no such arc in "Mona and Other Tales" apart from a truncated chronological one. These stories, compelling as they are, have been deprived of some of their potential power. Rather than constituting a crucial element in a larger work, they stand forlornly alone.

Alejandra Bronfman is assistant professor of history at the University of Florida.

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