To Cuba With Love and Hate

Imaginative short works of home and exile.

MONA AND OTHER TALES by Reinaldo Arenas, translated by Dolores Koch (Vintage Books, $12)

SUCCESS has cornered Cuban author Alfredo Fuentes into an unfortunate position. Ever since he escaped his homeland for the United States, the protagonist of Reinaldo Arenas’ short story “The Glass Tower” has spent too many nights attending literary soirees and too few moments penning the novel that thus far exists only in his brain. He recognizes that if he’s constantly clinking champagne glasses with figures like benefactress Se� Gladys P鲥z Campo and her arts-embracing circle, he’ll never complete his book. But conversely, if he declines all invitations, he’ll forfeit his reputation as one of Miami’s most admired writers. So instead, like a good party guest, he absentmindedly canoodles with an award-winning “poetess” while snatching heartfelt glances at the fantastical embodiments of his novel’s characters, ” . . . now struggling on the other side of the glass [wall] like huge insects drawn to a hermetically sealed street lamp.”

As it is for Alfredo, the intangible world of one’s imagination is the most desirable place in Mona and Other Tales, Arenas’ inspiringly inventive collection of 14 short stories and one essay, many of which appear for the first time in English. These pieces, mostly written during the author’s 20s and 40s, shift between two typified locations: America, most often marked by kitschy consumerism and awe-inducing freedom, and Cuba, an oppressive realm without privacy but also an island that once nurtured a young Arenas. Disgusted with the persecution he suffered for his writings and homosexuality, the author fled to the U.S. in 1980 on the notorious Mariel boatlift. (Arenas’ memoir, Before Night Falls, and Julian Schnabel’s likewise-titled film powerfully chronicle his journey.)

The most inventive of these stories achieve a kind of contained giddiness, enabling us to see both the craft and magic in the author’s work. “Mona,” a comic, surreal centerpiece on exile and history, follows a Cuban refugee/ Wendy’s worker who engages in a deadly love affair with a woman who may or may not be the incarnation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Employing the sisters from Federico Garc� Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba and transforming them from bitter spinsters into ravenous sluts, the slyly irreverent “Halley’s Comet” asserts that a life truly lived requires a little debauchery.

WHEN ARENAS descends to reality, where Castro rules Cuba and any self- respecting artist must become an exile, his stories slide into despair. Friends turn into traitors, lovers become separated, and—as in the hellish “The Parade Ends,” which has dissident Cubans squeezing through a living wall of flesh, sweat, tears, and excrement to reach a political safe haven—humanity is subject to degradation. But these darker stories serve more than an artistic purpose, as the writer-narrator of “The Parade Ends” confides: “All that terror goes onto the paper, the blank page, which, once filled, is carefully hidden in the double ceiling of the loft, or inside dictionaries, or behind a cabinet: it is my revenge . . . .” Eleven years after Arenas’ death, that revenge is more than relevant.