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Island in the Sun

THE COLOR OF SUMMER, Or the New Garden of Earthly Delights; By Reinaldo Arenas, Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley; Viking: 448 pp., $28.95

August 06, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

Back in his glory days, Edwin Edwards, the former governor of Louisiana, used to tease reporters by saying that the only way he'd be driven out of office would be if they found him in bed with a live boy or a dead girl. Even today, the National Enquirer will solemnly rumor same-sex trysts involving this or that exalted figure as if the mere report could jettison a career. Nevertheless, homosexuality as a political weapon has never packed the radioactive punch in El Norte that it has in our southern Americas, where Latino machismo turbocharges the power of sodomistic accusation.

Witness "The Color of Summer," a wild, Rabelaisian homosexual satire by the late Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, which may be the best political commentary on the state of our peculiar neighbor. In a country in which at one time "thousands of queens, fairies, faggots, and even just bi-curious young men are arrested and kicked into buses, iron cages, and patrol cars, and from there transferred to forced-labor camps," it is little wonder that homosexuality is the sharpest weapon of all.

Completed in 1990, the year Arenas, ravaged by AIDS, committed suicide, "The Color of Summer" is set in a 1999 of the future, the 40th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolutionary rise to power. The Maximum Leader has gathered the celebrities of the world onto his island for hours of speeches and demonstrations of his unbridled command. And to give the occasion a festive air, he has invited them for Carnival, that super-religious pagan holiday when, even in normal times, feather boas, mascara and falsies fall out of the closets of the most hetero haciendas of Latin America.

Carnival gives free rein to Arenas' vision, which, like that of Rabelais, is of a civil order turned upside down. In Arenas' looking-glass Cuba, homosexuality is the norm that the government struggles to repress. No one, from the hustlers who cruise the Malecon to the policemen who patrol them, is immune to the sting of buggery. Even Castro himself, nicknamed "Fifo," takes a walk on the Wilde side. "For heaven's sake, girls," says one of Arenas' queens, "if every time Fifo slept with a man he had him shot, there wouldn't be a man left on this whole godforsaken island."

Castro is not the only politician to bend to secret lusts. In a country where the populace spends half its day waiting for buses, Arenas imagines a mechanical ballet of a perfect assignation for the visiting Margaret Thatcher. "The Prime Minister was enchanted by that shining, powerful specimen of a real lady bus, and as she ran her hand over her admiringly she whispered a place and time for a tryst. . . . And on that night of love, the lustful words spoken by the Prime Minister, her sexual potency (in fact, that night the Iron Lady discovered that her sexual passion could be matched only by that of an English omnibus) awoke in all the female members of the noble Leyland clan a lesbian militancy that was indestructible and supremely powerful."

Nor are politicians the sole objects of Arenas' satire. Arenas tweaks artists of all nationalities, from the aged and decrepit Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonzo, to the writers Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass (who as Herr Gunter Greasy, author of "The Ten-Cent Drum," presents Fifo with a medal) and Castro's longtime ally Gabriel Garcia Marquez (dubbed the adoring Marquesa de Macondo or the reviled Gabriel Garcia Markoff), who kneels at Castro's feet.

In Cuba, a country of betrayal and secret police, everyone is leading a double life, even the author. As he wanders in and around the celebration, seducing soldiers, watching Fifo feed live prisoners to a bloodthirsty shark, observing his own mother inform on him, Arenas appears in three guises. To his mother, the writer is "Gabriel, for those who read what I write but can hardly ever publish, I'm Reinaldo, for the rest of my friends, with whom I escape from time to time in order to be totally myself, I'm Skunk in a Funk."

In three voices, Arenas weaves in and out of the celebration, in and out of the history of Cuba and in and out of his own autobiography. And at the root, that autobiography is political. For as riotous and virtuosic as "The Color of Summer" may be, a serious undertow pulls the reader through the tongue twisters and scene stealers. Beaten and imprisoned for his homosexuality, stripped not only of his clothes and his rights but of his manuscripts (Reinaldo, the character, is constantly rewriting from scratch his novel-in-progress, "The Color of Summer"), Arenas himself fled to the United States in 1980 during the Mariel boat lift and finally settled, physically if never spiritually, in New York. At various points in this nonlinear "cyclonic" (as Arenas calls it) novel, the author reminds the reader that "this is the story of an island turned first into a huge colonial plantation, then into the world's whorehouse, and now into a perfect and unanimous prison."

The real triumph of "The Color of Summer" may be the power of words. Their virtuoso vitality is well-served by Andrew Hurley's virtuosic translation. To give but one example, the stage play that occupies the first 50 pages of the novel, a play that plays in Spanish on lines and authors that mean little to English ears, is translated into transcendently witty verse by Hurley, in the manner of Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan and T.S. Eliot ("I saw you, in Lenin Park, watching the men come and go / Wishing for one more hunky gigolo"). Arenas' words, clearly, are drunk with an ambrosia that nourishes them beyond the death of their author. They have flown clear of that "perfect and unanimous prison." With luck, they will survive the warden as well.

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