Fourth volume of the late (1943–90) Cuban writer’s semiautobiographical “pentagony” (Arenas’s word), written in 1991 as part of a five-volume sequence (The Palace of White Skunks, 1990, etc.).
The rambling, free-form fantasy begins—smashingly—with a 50-page verse play, “The Flight of Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda.” The premise of this hilariously obscene set piece is the attempted escape to Miami of its eponymous heroine, a politically suspect poet, from the clutches of an island dictator named “Fifo”—who’s celebrating the 40th anniversary of his reign (declared the 50th, because that “round number” pleases the vainglorious tyrant). Fifo orders all his late political enemies recalled to life (for publicity purposes, but also for the pleasure of murdering them again)—and Arenas is off to the races: sketching the literary and (homo)sexual adventures of several locally famous “queens” and also his own several alter egos (Gabriel, “Skunk in a Funk,” et al); tossing off miscellaneous metafictional inventions (“Pensées,” “Tongue-Twisters,” interpolated satirical broadsides); reinventing traditional structure (the novel’s Foreword appears in its midsection)—all the while subjecting Fifo’s megalomaniacal posturing to elegant and devastating abuse. Examples: upon being informed that California apples can’t be grown on his island, Fifo declares this agricultural injustice is another illustration of capitalist aggression; a specially bred “Bloodthirsty Shark” patrols nearby waters, sniffing out would-be emigrants; a saint (Nelly) reputed to have been gay is marked for “decanonization”; the assassinations of rival heads of state are accomplished via anal intercourse, with that ultimate sexual weapon, “The Electric Venus”: on and on the scurrilous merriment goes. Yet beneath the grotesqueries, it’s plaintively clear that the story offers (as do all Arenas’s books, in some measure) “a detailed history of the horrors to which queer men of all stripes . . . [have] been subjected” through the ages, and especially in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Excessive, redundant, chaotic, and absolutely necessary. And if Fifo ever gets hold of a copy, he’ll be swallowing his cigars.