Dream of Diaspora
By Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Al terminar el sueño, soñaba que estaba en el principio de la noche,
en el sitio donde se iniciaba la inscripción de los soplos benévolos.
José Lezama Lima
Every Cuban exile is at some point shocked by the writings of Cuban ex-exile Reinaldo Arenas. Arenas is not an exile anymore, because he put an end to this own condition in December 1990. The Cuban Diaspora is the hyper-realistic dream a successful succession of suicides.
In his novel-apoteosis The Color Of Summer, Arenas’ literary legacy becomes an anthology of dreams. Dreams dreamt in Cuba and outside Cuba, but always about Cuba. As a whole generation of gay geniuses, Arenas also was HIV-positive and rapidly developed a mortal variant of AIDS. As he laid dying in a public hospital of New York, he kept on dictating the colorful sounds of this summoning summer.
He had been diagnosed in 1987. Three years later we find him finishing his agonic autobiography Before Night Falls, much later to be adapted in cinema by Julian Schnabel. And he was also dictating to his remaining friends and lovers, every time fewer and fewer as Arenas’ health deteriorated, the tragic-comic carnival of The Color of Summer, with its one thousand-and-one characters, including, of course, Fidel Castro, as well as most Cuban writers on the Island and in Exile, a faustic and caustic feast which is one of the saddest testaments of delirium in the history of Cuban literature. In the history of Cuba. In history.
Many of those turn-of-the-old-century “impossible dreams” of Reinaldo Arenas are now the turn-of-the-new-century impassable dreams of Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, flashbacks from the Cuban debacle that, as a neo-exile myself now, I keep on sharing them as if they were my own dreams, thus becoming a virtual vandal, a fool on the web posting dream after dream without any kind of credit in my @OLPL Twitter account:
I dreamed of a cataclysm. I dreamed of a bench alongside the ocean where I’d go in the evenings and just sit. I dreamed that I turned on the faucet and there was water. I dreamed of a pair of comfortable false teeth. I dreamed of a typewriter with an ñ. I dreamed of an almond tree growing in front of my house. I dreamed of a river with green water that said to me: Come, come, here lies the end of your desires. I dreamed that a naked angel came and carried me away. I dreamed of a city like the one I lost, but free. I dreamed that all the horror of the world was a dream.
Sleepless in the last stages of his back then quite mysterious disease, Reinaldo Arenas, knew that “there will be no rock, or doorway, or tree, or shrub that will not be fuel for our desolation and despair,” and well aware of “the merciless certainty that there is no escape. Because it is not possible to escape the color of summer. Because that color, that sadness, that petrified flight, that sparkling, gleaming, glaring tragedy ―that knowledge― is us.” That’s why he finally asked to a god in whom he had never had faith: “O Lord, don’t let me just melt away in these interminable summers. Let me be a meteor-like flash of horror that comes and is gone forever…”
Arenas confessed in Before Night Falls that “writing is not a profession, it is a curse.” During his ten years outside of Cuba he “realized that an exile has no place anywhere, because there is no place, because the place where we started to dream, where we discovered the natural world around us, read our first book, loved for the first time, is always the world of our dreams.” For him, “the exile is a person who, having lost a loved one, keeps searching for the face he loves in every new face and, forever deceiving himself, thinks he has found it,” so that “in exile one is nothing but a ghost, the shadow of someone who never achieves full reality. I ceased to exist when I went to exile; I started to run away from myself.”
Caribbean runaways, carelessly running away from ourselves. Is this definition of Arenas’ Cubanness appropriate enough for the U.S. academy, for the army of Cubanologists that pry upon the archives of Cuban literature, which can only be accessed from outside, for on the Island of Treasures nothing is treasurable anymore?
In the same book, Arenas wrote his New Thoughts of Pascal, where he prophetically predicted that, as “there is only one strength: the strength of desperation,” then “the only thing that redeems a man’s life is suicide. Every great work of mankind, therefore, stems from a suicidal inspiration.”
Poor Arenas, poor Rei. Poor Cuban exiled writers without the talent of Arenas surrounding them in silence like a halo of hallucination. Pages and pages of Before Night Falls are dedicated by Arenas to this ominous oneiric universe: “dreams and nightmares have been an important part of my life. I always went to bed like someone getting ready for a long trip: […] to go to bed and switch off the light has been for me to submit to a totally unknown world, full of delicious as well as sinister promises.” To the point that “the first image I remember from my childhood is a dream, a terrible dream. I was on a reddish esplanade and huge teeth were approaching from both sides; it was an enormous mouth that made a strange sound. The closer the teeth came, the more high-pitched their sound would become; at the point they were ready to devour me, I would wake up.”
In other nights he would find himself “playing on the eaves of our house in the country and all of a sudden, due to a wrong move, I would feel the most extraordinary shivers, my hands would sweat, and I would start to slide, falling into an immense dark void; the fall would become an endless agony and I would wake up right before smashing into the ground.”
Still “at other times my dreams were in full color and extraordinary people would approach me offering me their friendship, which I accepted gladly; they were gigantic creatures with smiling faces. Later I often dreamed of Lezama, who was at a gathering in an enormous hall; music could be heard in the distance and Lezama pulled out a large pocket watch; facing him was his wife, María Luisa. I was a boy, and when I went up to him, he would open his legs and receive me smiling, while saying to María Luisa: “Look how well he is doing.” But by then Lezama was already dead.”
Dead since the mid-seventies of the Cuban Revolution who ostracized them both, Lezama and Arenas. And many others on the Island back then. That is, back now. Repressed not by the dictatorship, which in Cuba has magically disappeared, but repressed by the happiness of a whole people emancipated from its capitalist chains. Repressed by the first free territory in the Americas, as the slogans chanted. Repressed by the only country which defeated American imperialism in its own backyard, as the speeches of Fidel Castro never allowed us to forget it, anniversary after anniversary: a victory for humanity only 90 miles south from the source of all of our national evils.
Like many Cubans, like me, like probably you, Arenas “dreamed that although I had been in the United States, I was back in Cuba, I do not know why, perhaps because my plane was hijacked or because someone had deceived me by telling me I could return without any problem. I was in my hot room again, but now I could never leave; I was condemned to stay there forever. I needed to receive a special notification to go to the airport, someone had to pick me up in a car that never came; I knew I could never leave that place, and that the police would come any moment and arrest me. I had already traveled around the world and learned what freedom was, but due to some strange circumstance I was back in Cuba and could not escape. I would wake up and, seeing the deteriorating walls of my room in New York, feel an indescribable joy.”
The joy of the dying, sweetie. No mercy for the dying, unless they are definitively dead. And definitively not dangerous. So that now you can finally return to your country. Not ours. I hope you’d understand that I cannot accompany you there. Not yet. For I still have to wait for the next December of 1990 to be allowed to do. The Cuban Revolution never forgets its wandering children around the world.
In the half bucolic and half barbaric landscape of his childhood, in the rural Cuba of the 40s and 50s of the 20th century, Arenas “dreamed that when I was a kid the sea came right up to my house; it came rushing over dozens of miles, and the whole yard would be flooded. It was great to let myself float on the water; I swam for a long time in my flooded house, looking at the ceiling, taking in the briny smell of the sea that continued rushing in a torrent.”
In his childhood dreams of exile, Arenas sometime wants “to get into my mother’s house and there is a chicken-wire fence in front of the door. I repeatedly call for someone to open the door; my mother and my aunt are on the other side of the fence and I signal them. I move my hand toward my chest and birds start coming out, parrots of all colors, bigger and bigger insects and birds; I start yelling for them to open the gate, and they stare at me through the chicken wire; I continue to scream and all kinds of animals keep coming out of me, but I cannot get through the door.”
Once, while Arenas was on vacation at Miami Beach, he dreamt “a terrible dream. I was in a very large bathroom full of excrement and had to sleep there. Surrounding me were hundreds of rare birds that moved about with great difficulty. More and more of those awful birds kept coming, gradually closing all possibility of escape; the entire horizon was full of birds; they had something metallic about them, and made a dull noise; they sounded like buzzing alarms. Suddenly I realized that all those birds had managed to get into my head, and that my brain was swelling to accommodate them. As they entered my head, I grew old. This same nightmare occurred for several nights in a row while I was in Miami and I would wake up drenched in sweat.”
But then, back “in New York I once dreamed I could fly, a privilege not granted to humans, even though we gays are called pájaros [birds]. But I was in Cuba, flying over the palm trees; it was easy, you only had to believe you could do it. Soon I was flying over Fifth Avenue in Miramar, over the royal palms that line the street; the scenery was beautiful to behold while I, joyful and radiant, flew above it, over the crowns of the palm trees. I woke up here in New York still feeling that I was high in the air.”
For Cuban exiles, lightness can be as nightmarish as weight. Virgilio Piñera, a close friend of Arenas who was also censored, harassed, and no one knows if murdered in the Sovietized Havana of the mid-70s, had warned us many decades before in his long anti-epic poem The Whole Island: “the luminous face of a badly born dream, / a carnival that begins with the song of a rooster, / mist covering the scandal of the savannah with its icy disguise. / […] / In confusion a people escape their skin / dozing off with the light, / the explosive drug that can bring a fatal dream / to the beautiful eyes of men and women, / their immense and shadowy eyes / through which skin enters into whatever strange rites. / […] / But the night closes over poetry and shapes disappear. / This island night’s first action is the awakening of scent. / […] / Not woman and man face to face, / but their silhouettes, face to face, / enter, to Newton’s embarrassment, / weightlessly into love. / […] / Lower, lower, and the sea stinging their backs; / a people stay next to their beast at the hour of departure, / howling at the sea, devouring fruit, sacrificing animals, / always lower, until they know the whole weight of their island; / the weight of an island in its people’s love.”
Piñera painted with words. Arenas painted with dreams of death and the lost color of the Cuban skies: “I have a huge loft, and create enormous paintings; I think the paintings I produce have to do with people dear to me; the color blue is predominant and people dissolve in it. Suddenly, Lázaro enters, young, slender; he greets me dejectedly, walks towards the large window facing the street, and jumps out. I scream and run down the stairs of my New York apartment, but as I am going down, I am back in Holguín; my gran mother is there, as well as several of my aunts. I tell them Lázaro has jumped out the window and they all run into the street; it is Tenth of October Street, where my mother lives. There, face down in the mud, lies Lázaro, dead. I lift his head and look at his beautiful, muddy face; my grandmother comes, look first at his face and then up at the heavens, saying: ‘My God, why?’ I later tried to interpret this dream in various ways: it was not Lázaro who died but me; he is my double; the person I love most is the symbol of my destruction. For that reason it made sense that those rushing to see the body were my relatives, not Lázaro’s.”
Blue is a recurrent color for the refugees of a red Revolution, the pariahs of proletarian’s paradise. Red flags, red school uniforms, red street banners, red headlines in the newspapers, red Sundays of volunteer work. To read red in and out the rhetoric of a tropical totalitarian Redvolution. Blue is the remaining resistance for the losers fleeing away from the monochromatic rainbow of historic materialism. Blue means weak, vulnerability. Blue is the glue that calls for all those vanishing womanish Cuban exiles, only good for typing ta-ta-ta in their typing machines, while being absolutely useless for holding a machine gun to shoot ra-ta-ta-ta-ta in defense of their own homeland, always on the verge of the long and long dreamt invasion by a foreign foes. Blue is foreign, fake, fragile, fugitive. Blue is the new pink.
Cristina García, in her 1992 short-stories of Dreaming in Cuban, recollects part of this domestic and at the same time political bluelescence. One of her many female characters, prefers to paint only in blue, in this case out for sheer bluestalgia, for “until I returned to Cuba, I never realized how many blues exist. The aquamarines near the shoreline, the azures of deeper waters, the eggshell blues beneath my grandmother’s eyes, the fragile indigos tracking her hands. There’s a blue, too, in the curves of the palms, and the edges of the words we speak, a blue tinge to the sand and the seashells and the plump gulls on the beach. The mole by Abuela’s mouth is also blue, a vanishing blue. ‘These are very beautiful, Pilar,’” says Celia to her granddaughter: “‘But do I really look so unhappy?’”
 Lezama Lima, J. Cangrejos, golondrinas. In: Cuentos, Ed. Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 1987. (When his dream was over, he dreamt of being at the beginning of night, in the place where the inscription of all benevolent blowing is initiated.)
 Arenas, R. The Color Of Summer Or The New Garden Of Earthly Delights. (Translated by Andrew Hurley.) Viking, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2000.
 Arenas, R. Impossible Dreams. In: The Color Of Summer Or The New Garden Of Earthly Delights. (Translated by Andrew Hurley.) Viking, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2000, pp. 240-241.
 Arenas, R. A Prayer. In: The Color Of Summer Or The New Garden Of Earthly Delights. (Translated by Andrew Hurley.) Viking, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2000, pp. 365-366.
 Arenas, R. Before Night Falls. (Translated by Dolores M. Koch) Viking, New York, 1993.
 Arenas, R. Nouveaux Pensées de Pascal, ou Pensées d’Enfer. In: The Color Of Summer Or The New Garden Of Earthly Delights. (Translated by Andrew Hurley.) Viking, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2000, pp. 167-169.
 Piñera, V. La isla en peso. The Whole Island. (Translated by Mark Weiss.) Shearsman Books Ltd, London, 2010.
 García, C. Dreaming in Cuban. Ballantine Books, New York, 1992.
 García, C. The Fire Between Them. In: Dreaming in Cuban. Ballantine Books, New York, 1992, pp. 75-95.