Top critical review
A memoir of gay sex and political persecution, with a bit too much of the former
on 19 April 2016
I read this book because I was visiting Cuba and wanted to know what life was like under the Communist regime there. This autobiography describes how Reinaldo Arenas is persecuted for being both gay and a critic of the government. Unable to publish his work in Cuba he infuriates the regime by having them smuggled out of the country and published in France. As a result he is arrested, forced to sign a recantation of all his beliefs, then sent to prison, whose squalid conditions he describes in some detail. But more than that he describes what life is like for a writer who is out of favour and thus unable to get a job: grinding poverty, government surveillance, betrayal by friends who are government informers, the constant search for somewhere to hide his banned manuscripts, and for friends that he can trust. The book made me aware of the moral compromises I was making in going to Cuba and thereby providing an oppressive autocracy with hard currency. That said, it is a story of a life lived to the full and is populated with colourful characters and unlikely situations that make it an entertaining read.
Why then only 3 stars? Because, it was not what I expected. Arenas was clearly a very highly sexed man, and 40-50% of the book is a history of his gay sexual encounters, which, although amusing in places, quickly became tiresome. Another 10-20% consists of character studies of Cuban writers that you have probably never heard of (I hadn't), leaving just 40-50% about the rest of his life which was the part I was primarily interested in. He also comes across as slightly unhinged. It is a life that I would prefer to read about than to have lived.