Reinaldo Arenas uses the written word to criticize all forms of authoritarianism, especially that which impedes independent thought and action. His most fervent and defiant works condemn the dictatorial regime of the post-Batista revolutionary junta in Cuba, headed by Castro (during Arenas’s lifetime). However, he does not limit his criticism to Cuba. He once stated that both capitalism and communism severely limit freedom and expression, but in a capitalist society, one is free to complain openly; in a communist society, one must quietly accept repression. Many of Arenas’s works also condemn adult authority over children. As in all authoritarian situations (political, societal, and familial), adult authority stifles the independence of children and adolescents. Arenas’s works also contain much psychological and physical abuse.
Arenas presents the reader with a world where the protagonists must use their intellectual skills to survive in a world that is not logical, or just. The reader is confronted with unreliable narrations, descriptions, and dialogue. Indeed, Arenas writes as if truth is only to be found between fantasies, lies, distortions, exaggerations, and hyperbole. His works are often confusing counterpoints within perceived truths. For Arenas, truth is not universal, so the reader of his work is forced to decide for himself or herself what truth is being presented. Arenas reveals a society of humans who struggle for self-expression and self-esteem.
Arenas’s textual style varies. In some novels, he uses neither paragraphs nor chapters. In others, he employs an inordinate amount of chapters and textual divisions. His language is generally quite graphic, to the point of being repugnant to some readers. Arenas is not concerned with convincing his readership of the innocence of his characters. To the contrary, he presents their actions as forms of fantasy, and it is up to readers to accept or deny the “reality” of the characters’ actions. Extraordinary events are mingled with deceptions, half-truths, distortions, and confusion. The fictional is not obvious and neither is the truth. Furthermore, although Arenas’s works are often fantastical and even magical, they are not examples of the Magical Realism employed by many Latin American writers.
Singing from the Well
Singing from the Well is the first novel in a five-book series that Arenas called pentagonía, or five agonies. Singing from the Well is the first and only novel by Arenas to be published in Cuba. (His later works were banned there as well.) Like many of his works, there is no definite chronological order to the story, nor does it clearly delineate its characters. The only consistent linking of time and space is the dysfunctional relationship between the principal protagonist, a young boy growing up in rural poverty and confusion, and his mother. He is never named, unlike his imagined cousin, Celestino.
The world of the boy is a bizarre mixture of nightmare, punishment, and repression. His mother disciplines him with an ox prod, his cousins conspire to kill their grandfather, and his grandmother burns his beloved crosses. To survive this world of cruel fantasies, the boy splits...
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