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Fiction

August 23, 1987|Elena Brunet

SINGING FROM THE WELL by Reinaldo Arenas, translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley (Viking: $16.95; 206 pp.). Reinaldo Arenas lived 20 years under Castro's regime in his native Cuba, during which time he was imprisoned and eventually expelled at the time of the Mariel boat lift in 1980. His crime? "Improper conduct"--less euphemistically, political dissidence or suspected homosexuality.

"Singing From the Well" was originally published in Cuba in 1967. Told in a fever of surrealistic images, by turns magical and absurd, the book is a childhood memoir related by a boy whose family life is lunatic.

In this illogical world, women fly, lizards talk, witches dispense free advice, and the spirits of dead cousins give orders. The boy's grandmother feigns helping in the fields when in fact she "pulls up the (corn), breaks off the stalk, and pretends she's planting it again." The grandfather wields a hatchet to chop down trees on whose trunks the boy's cousin, Celestino, has been carving what he says is poetry. Although no one in the immediate family can read, they are convinced his writings are scabrous--"I could just die from shame when I think . . . of the filth written on the trees!" Relatives are as much unpredictable spirits of nature as the elf in the wood.

"We're all going crazy," the boy says. "I don't like to live so far away from people, because you spend your whole life long seeing visions. And the worst part of that is that you can never tell whether they're visions or not. . . ."

The reader will have similar problems. The book reads like a verbal fun-house phantasmagoria, but it should bear this disclaimer: not recommended for the skeptical or those with little patience for absurdist literature.

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