"There went my mother, she just went running out the door. She was screaming like a crazy woman that she was going to jump down the well. I see my mother at the bottom of the well. I see her floating in the greenish water choked with leaves. So I run for the yard, out to where the well is, that's fenced around with a wellhead of naked-boy saplings so rickety it's almost falling in."
thus starts this wonderful novel by Reinaldo Arenas. Arenas has been in the news for some time after his five day long voyage escapade from Cuba after being prisoned, tortured and abused by the regime. Arenas committed suicide , unable to fight AIDS leaving behind one of the best 'suicide notes' I have ever read. True to the image which I had about this author, this novel, the first of the Pentagonia series ( 'secret history of Cuba', according to the author) depicts a boys life during the pre-revolution days.
Plot consists of the boy and his family ( mother, grand mother , grand father and an aunt) living in poverty under anarchy, isolated from the society. They continuously fought, abused and cursed at each other, often getting into murderous thoughts. The boy constantly live with a hope of murdering his grand father who beat him up regularly and 'split his skull by half' using the hatchet. Grand mother is no different showering him with abuse and anger. Mother, a silent sufferer, blames the boy for his indifference to her struggle and for her misfortune. We understand from the boy that his father had returned to his in-laws one day leaving his mother to their custody, never to return ( he did not look back, even once ). To this scene comes Celestino, a cousin, after his mother ( the boys aunt) committed suicide by hanging, and burning herself. Celestino's arrival only worsened the situation. The already fragile relationship had become worse, but the young boys soon become friends. Young Celestino, scribbled poems on the tree trunks, only to be cut down by the grand father. He then turned to the pineapple leaves, scribbling away, only to face the same fate. The novel concludes with a Christmas Party when the extended family of aunts, cousins ( interestingly no men apart from the grandfather), the dead cousins, the witches and aunts all adding up to the chaos and destruction.
Poignant, lyrical and moving, frustrating at the same time, the prose of Arenas is outstandingly refreshing and clear. While the subject is of pre-revolutionary Cuba and most of the characters are allegory of the republic itself, his writing has maintained an high energy and is brave.
Structurily, he experiments with various forms.. Reality and fantasy are intermixed and at times it is very demanding on the reader. Towards the end, the story is through dialogues ( as in plays). There are pages at odd places with verses taken from different sources ( presumably, scribbled by Celestino on tree trunks). Half way through the book comes to "THE END" , but continuing further gets you the "THE SECOND END" , until the "LAST END". I am not sure, why this ploy as there is no real end or change of course anywhere. Arguably, Celestino himself could be an alter ego of the boy. Celestino never speaks to anyone but to the Boy, never reacts to the beatings or torments, and is referred as dead many a times in the narrative.
Overall a fantastic reading experience.
Singing From the Well ( 1965)
Reinaldo Arenas ( translated from Spanish by Andrew Hurley )
Obituary, Article on Arenas at Moorewatch