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CUBA: Before Night Falls > As You Read - Thoughts on Before Night Falls?

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message 1: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
As usual, what are we thinking as we read Before Night Falls?

message 2: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Reminder: if your library doesn't have this book you can still probably find it through interlibrary loan!

For Minnesota folks, if you have a library card you can go directly to and put in a request, then pick it up at your local library.

message 3: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
So FYI, there is a LOT of sex in this, including incest, bestiality, and (consenting?) sex with minors.

message 4: by Claire (last edited Jul 14, 2018 07:33PM) (new)

Claire | 96 comments I finished and I have some mixed feelings about this book, which I found simultaneously fascinating and disturbing. Some thoughts:

* Too much sex for me (including bestiality/incest/sex with minors, as Cait mentions). And I have to say, I didn’t really buy it. 5,000 encounters before the 70’s? The way Arenas writes, it is as if every trip on Cuban public transportation was a giant homosexual orgy, under a regime that was sending people they caught engaging in such behaviors to concentration camps. And he writes “everyone” who grew up in the countryside was having encounters with animals, yet his mother was leading a chaste life of sexual frustration after his father left? I wonder if this was exaggerated for a reason, e.g. to provoke the regime. Although admittedly this is quite far from my personal experience. (Also FYI, the second half of the book had less of this, although it is still quite graphic including descriptions of horrible conditions in jail and multiple murders.)
* Because the sexual content felt exaggerated, I was left with the impression that Arenas is a somewhat unreliable narrator. I found this frustrating, even though I don’t doubt the severity of his oppression and the horrible conditions in Cuba.
* There are a number of parallels with The Return: The intricate descriptions of the sea and the prison, the way the government brought together writers for the purpose of monitoring/censoring them, the assassinations abroad, etc.
* Also many parallels with readings about North Korea. Most striking to me: The way your “friends” and many people around you were often informers, so you couldn’t trust anyone — a psychological tactic often used by authoritarian regimes. Also having to book a train months in advance to see your family nearby (reminds me of a story in Bandi’s The Accusation). And much more.
* It’s amazing how Arenas persevered in the face of censorship, risking imprisonment and rewriting entire novels multiple times repeatedly after they were captured by censors.
* I did not know that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a supporter/friend of Castro.
* Interesting to read Arenas's view of the differences between homosexuality in Cuba (where he says it was more accepted for heterosexual men to engage in relations with other men) and the US.
* Interesting to read Arenas’s critique of capitalism after arriving in the US. He did not just escape communism and embrace “freedom.” The quote that sticks with me: “The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.” He has a pretty critical assessment of NYC, and I agree with the capitalistic flaws he notes although I wouldn’t go so far as saying it has no culture.
* Interesting to read Arenas’s critique of the far left in the US; his sense that it was fashionable to support Castro in certain circles and how speaking out against the regime actually hurt his career (e.g. made professors take his work off their syllabus).
* The last few chapters give a perspective of the struggles Arenas faced as a refugee torn from his home, even after he has "escaped" from the oppression.
* Some other flaws: Passing instances of misogyny, he keeps pointing out the color of people’s skin as the only description of them, and altogether too many characters to keep track of.

message 5: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Bull | 18 comments I'd echo most of what Claire shared above - thanks for your insights!

The way Arenas talked about sex throughout most of the book made me deeply uncomfortable. I was trying to parse out exactly what made me uncomfortable, and I think it was the level of promiscuity described, the culture of very public sex, and sexual violence. I liked how Claire drew out the contrast between his own sexual exploits and his adamant, repeated references to his mother's chastity throughout her life. I didn't so much doubt his narrative of his own sexual exploits as his assessment of his mother's lackthereof.

When Cait and I were in VA last week, we also talked about the matter-of-fact way he talks about his sexual experiences as a child, particularly sex with animals. He narrates this in a way that suggests it was a regular part of everyone's life, so much so that it actually made me think: Am I the weird one here? I would be very interested to read other accounts of growing up in the Cuban countryside... I also wondered about whether there was sexual abuse as part of his childhood that wasn't narrated, given some of the other things that were (incest and bestiality).

When he got to talking more about the political changes in Cuba, I enjoyed the book a lot more, especially thinking about the role of writers/artists within and in opposition to the regime (I also didn't know about Garcia Marquez' support of Castro).

A few more things I struggled with:
- How he talked about other gay men, especially those he labeled "fairies" and would use feminine pronouns for. His use of "they" and "them" when talking about other gay men, as if a separate group.
- Misogynistic and racist overtones, as Claire mentions above.
- Hard to keep track of friends and whether or not they're informing on him/what the status of their relationship is. Although, to be fair, it seems that it was often hard for him to keep track of that, too.

Some things I found interesting/enjoyable:
- Descriptions of connection to the land and the sea: "To farm the land is an act of love, a legendary act. There is a tacit complicity between the plant or seed and the person who is caring for it."
- Interesting and challenging commentary on life within a dictatorship, such as this on the suicide of Olga Andreu: "There are times when living means to degrade yourself, to make compromises, to be bored to death."
- His reflections on Cuban culture: "I think that Cubans are defined by noise; it seems to be inherent in their nature, and also part of their exhibitionism. They need to bother others; they can neither enjoy nor suffer in silence."
- His reflections on his exile, the idea of statelessness, and how you have a longing for a place that no longer exists.

message 6: by Claire (last edited Jul 17, 2018 04:35PM) (new)

Claire | 96 comments Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sylvia! I think you're exactly right in calling these "exploits." Like you, I was also trying to understand what made this so off-putting for me compared to other books that tackle difficult/taboo topics (a recent example from my own reading: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison). I decided there's a big difference between invoking taboo topics to make a point (e.g. incest in The Bluest Eye exposes the horrors of cyclic abuse resulting from slavery/racism), versus the way Arenas mentions them in a matter-of-fact manner or is even (possibly?) exaggerating/bragging.

I didn't at first pick up on the language surrounding "fairies" but I think you're right that it is offensive. Your comment makes me think back to the part where he compared all the women in his life to witches (one of the examples of passing misogyny - yikes!) and then added to the list of witches a few of these "fairies."

message 7: by Cait (last edited Jul 19, 2018 09:24AM) (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
I am having sooooo much trouble with this book, I can't even get past the beginning and the bestiality. I don't think it says anything good about me that I'm more bothered by that than some of the really horrible war stuff we've read? Perhaps it's just as some of you said above that it seems more braggy than anything else. Also I don't think the disconnected style of the narration (at least in the beginning) helps, even though it makes sense based on how he had to write it.

I might return to this later, because from what you've said it's better in the last half, but for now I'm going to return my interlibrary loan :( :( :( I feel bad that I can't get through this one yet! But I am glad to hear your thoughts on the book, gives me hope that I can get through it at some other time, plus your reviews are interesting in general :)

message 8: by Cait (new)

Cait | 150 comments Mod
Also I've definitely thought about doing the traditional book club cheat and just watching the movie :D

message 9: by Becki (new)

Becki Iverson | 81 comments I was late to start this and now I'm really scared to open it based on all of your comments - yikes! What a bummer that this is such a downer. I might hold off or try to scrape my way through it this month (since I've already read The Best That We Could Do). Can't win 'em all I guess!

message 10: by Claire (new)

Claire | 96 comments Quick update. I'm reading a different book right now which cites the following statistic in a chapter on homosexuality: "In a 1981 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDS patients with an average age of 35 years reported an average of 60 sex partners per year, or approximately 1,000 lifetime partners." The book notes that homosexual men tend to have many more partners than people in exclusively heterosexual relationships. So I'm coming around to believing Arenas more (although there still may be a bit of exaggeration/bragging involved) and just accepting this as something pretty far from my personal experience. I think Sylvia is right that the part about his mother's extreme chastity is more likely him misunderstanding *her* perspective.

Don't be too hard on yourself Cait! This was definitely a difficult read and I can understand why many people would have trouble getting through it.

message 11: by Sylvia (new)

Sylvia Bull | 18 comments Thanks for the info and update, Claire!

And ditto what she said about not finishing - that’s happened to me with some of our other books. This was a strange and hard one for sure!

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