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p r o l o g u e
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Encountering Arenas
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In reality, one always writes
the same book, the book of our life.
reinaldo arenas,
‘‘La vida es riesgo o abstinencia’’
I first encountered Reinaldo Arenas in a class called ‘‘The ‘New Novel’ in
Spanish America.’’ El mundo alucinante (The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray
Servando), Arenas’s parodic rewriting of the memoirs of Fray Servando
Teresa de Mier, a rebellious friar of colonial Mexico, was among the novels
on the syllabus, which also included three other Cuban works: Guillermo
Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers), Alejo Carpentier’s
El siglo de las luces (Explosion in a Cathedral), and José Lezama Lima’s Para-
diso (Paradiso). I still possess and treasure that old copy of El mundo aluci-
nante, not only because it was my introduction to Arenas but also because it
is a first edition—an edition, published in Mexico in 1969, that brought
much joy and pain to Arenas. My copy of El mundo alucinante is liberally
marked with a green flair pen, the annotations of an eager graduate student
in his early twenties; although these markings devalue my copy of the novel
as a vendible commodity, they make it valuable to me, for they help me
reconstruct my initial connections to the book and its author.
The year was 1973 and very little was known about Arenas. My professor,
Kessel Schwartz, who had just published A New History of Spanish American
Fiction, which devoted only part of a paragraph to Arenas (2: 207), did not
have much to tell his students about the author of El mundo alucinante,
other than the fact that he had written two excellent novels—the other one,
Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well), was published in Havana in
1967—and that Arenas was in trouble in Cuba for belonging to what the
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