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Reinaldo Arenas; Cuban Novelist, Poet

December 10, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reinaldo Arenas, whose realistic novels and poems were couched in surrealistic images and often centered on the death of the artist, has killed himself.

The Cuban-born writer who was imprisoned and ostracized in his native land after his disillusion with the Castro regime, was 47 when he died after taking a combination of pills and alcohol.

His agent, Thomas Colchie, told Reuters news agency over the weekend that his friend and client was suffering from AIDS when he decided to kill himself Friday in his modest apartment in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City.

"He knew he was dying," Colchie said.

Arenas, whose "Singing From the Well" won France's coveted Prix Medici award in 1969 as best foreign novel of that year, was raised by grandparents in Oriente Province where the family farmed and raised cattle.

Despite acclaim overseas, his first novel was never printed in Cuba because Arenas, like other homosexuals, had fallen into disfavor.

Neither were his other works, including the novel, "Hallucinations," and his poem, "El Central," which he wrote while serving time in a Castro labor camp.

"Hallucinations," which was translated into seven languages including Japanese, is a fictionalized account of the 18th-Century Mexican heretic priest, Fray Severando Teresa de Mier, who spends much of the book wandering in and out of revolutions and prisons.

The book proved prophetic for Arenas himself was taken in 1974 from the labor camp to Havana's fortress prison El Morro where he served two years in what he described in his autobiography as "inhuman conditions."

He was jailed as a subversive, he wrote, because his writings were being smuggled out of Cuba and published abroad.

Arenas was released in 1980 and came to the United States with the other Mariel refugees.

As a teen-ager Arenas had supported Fidel Castro's revolution but turned against the Cuban leader because of what he saw as excesses toward his fellow artists.

"The revolution was seen with favorable eyes," he wrote, "since there was the possibility of studying, of bettering oneself. . . ."

Although he found freedom in the United States, he led an impoverished and isolated life, because many in the literary world scorned him for his anti-Castroism.

Two more of his novels "The Graveyard of the Angels" and "Farewell to the Sea" were published in this country since his arrival.

"His work transcended the question of Cuban politics. He wrote about freedom," Colchie said, adding that each novel in Arenas' five-part series "Pentagonia"--the first of which was "Farewell to the Sea"--climaxed with an artist's death.

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