Arenas' 'Color of Summer' -- Cuba as hell


"The Color of Summer," by Reinaldo Arenas. Viking. 417 pages. $28.95.

In last year's beautiful memoir of a life in narrative, Larry McMurtry tells of early days reviewing books for the Wichita Falls Times. He called his critiques "little book reports" and tells of "the thrill of opening the packages of books when they came, seeing what wonders had been cast up on my doorstep."

"The Color of Summer," by Reinaldo Arenas, has been cast upon Calvert Street for review.

Oh, but that I could cast it back.

Arenas, a Cuban who arrived here with the Mariel boat lift in 1980 and died of AIDS in New York City a decade later at age 47, is revered in Latin American letters, particularly for his anti-Casto allegories.

Indeed, he has been praised by scholars as the most widely read and highly acclaimed author of post-revolutionary Cuba for a shelf of books described as "terrifying and beautiful."

Some of it is terrifying: "I will paint a heap of bones -- me -- rotting in a field overrun with weeds ..."

And some certainly beautiful: "I will paint plants with their roots upside down, seeking their nutrients in the sky ..."

But I'm not sure if that is enough, even for the fourth part of a five-book "pentagony," through which Arenas chronicled life on an island to which the United States couldn't wait to send Elian Gonzalez back.

Perhaps if I were homosexual (Arenas, who was, uses brutal language to describe that orientation); or the victim of Communism (as Arenas, imprisoned for seven years for "ideological deviation,"); or, in some political or cultural fashion, as Grand Funk Railroad used to say, "inside looking out," I might feel temperamentally suited to review this book.

In fact, as the half-Polish son of a woman who grew up in St. Casimir's parish, I don't speak Spanish or pretend to know the Hispanic experience.

Yet, cast upon me was the last manuscript completed by the celebrated Arenas -- subtitled, "The New Garden of Earthly Delights." In the spirit of McMurtry's youthful book reports, I will relay what takes place and what I am able to make of it.

Through 115 chapters, some of them extraordinarily thin slices of pie, there is not much that is pleasing in this book, which begins with an epigram from Carajicomedia: "I'll tell you, anywhere there are this many whores, you can't make a single one of them follow orders ..."

More than 100 chapters of whores! Arenas might as well set the tale on Wall Street instead of a city on the "island," that we know to be Havana. And the last chapter -- after a jig-saw of tongue twisters dropped in the midst of plays sprinkled over narrative woven through satire and diatribe -- is a single paragraph astonishingly called, "The Story."

In this paragraph, a page away from the postscript of translator Andrew Hurley, the story begins.

"This is the story of an island whose people were never allowed to live in peace," writes Arenas. "... a viper's nest of intrigue, abuse, mistreatment and unending horror..."

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun and a fiction writer. He will tour the United States this summer in support of his new book, "Orlo and Leini," published in May by Woodholme House.

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