Havana, Cuba, December, http://www.cubanet.org. In Havana, at the corner of Prado and Dragones streets, the regime affixed a plaque to honor the memory of a foreign fascist: Manuel Fraga Iribarne. But not even the tiniest plaque or sign exists in this city that invites us to remember the most notable among those Cuban authors educated during the revolutionary period: Reinaldo Arenas.
Although he was born in the eastern part of the island, Arenas came into his own as a writer in Havana and it was this city that witnessed his most joyful and painful experiences, insofar as he was ingenious, rebellious, Dionysian, irreverent, a rabble-rouser and dead set against obeying any rule that wasn’t that of his free spirit and his insatiable flesh.
Many are the sites through which we could trace the footprints that he left in this city. Someday, in a democratic future, when the cultural authorities decide to honor themselves by revitalizing the memory of this man by means of a tour-homage to the places where he created, reveled, and suffered in Havana, it will be enough for them to use as their guide the descriptions from his book, Before Night Falls, a work as dramatic and simultaneously funny as its author.
Precisely in that book, Arenas dedicates an entire chapter to the Hotel Monserrate (corner of Monserrate and Obrapía Streets), a former whore’s den in whose second story he managed to carve out the tiniest private space in Havana, a room that he was to buy secretly. In that Hotel, according to the author himself, there lived a veritable cornucopia of misfits who lived outside the law. “If the police would come,” he comments jovially, “the only thing they had to do was put up some prison bars across the main entrance to the building, the only door in the place, and everyone inside would be held prisoner.”
A few days ago, curious to know if anything had changed, I visited the Monserrate, more than thirty years after the details described by Arenas.
There are no substantial changes. The building remains as dilapidated as always. The same atrocious front door. The dark hallways, the walls and ceiling with chipped paint, that hasn’t been retouched in more than half a century. The ancient elevator, which inspired in Arenas such great jokes and so many furtive sexual adventures, continues its astonishing balancing act, while contemplating a fall without ever actually falling. The clothes hanging on the lines on the balconies…
With respect to the “wildlife” that is the neighbors, the old whores have all died by now, after their conversion to the Communist Party, but it’s still possible to find there several of the recurring characters from Before Night Falls. A few have left (for Hell or God knows where) and others remain the same, stranded in time, only now so much older. But almost all of those that remain couldn’t be photographed because, as if they were Hollywood A-listers, they demanded that I pay them in CUC (convertible pesos) for appearing in any photos or for affording me a brief interview. One exception was Bebita, who not for nothing had also been an exception when she gave her friendship and her generous help to the writer. “I am Reinaldo’s friend,” she told me, while she opened the door to her room to offer me a seat, very willing, and even enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing me up-to-date, for free, on life and miracles in the Monserrate.
Through her I learned that the character who sold the room to the novelist (he calls him Rubén) continues to be as warped as ever and that he charged him for using the bathroom, 50 centavos a pop, according to Arenas, but Bebita clarifies that it was 50 centavos for using the toilet and a peso for taking a bath. With some help from Bebita, who allowed him to put a waste pipe through the middle of her room, Reinaldo was finally able to have his own bathroom. Later, the room would revert back to the aforementioned Rubén.
“On the first floor lived Bebita with her friend; they were two women who played the drums and who would get all caught up in problems caused by jealousy on a daily basis,” wrote Arenas. Well, she still lives there, also with a friend, perhaps not the same one as before, since she is much younger than Bebita. But now peace reigns in Bebita’s room, although her personal saint is still the same: Shangó, the orisha of storms (thunder and lightening).
“Some day if they decide to put up a monument in honor of Reinaldo,” she said to me, “no other place would be more ideal than the Monserrate Building, nest of his suffering and his partying. And I assume that the monument ought to be in the shape of a phallus.”
Photos and article by José Hugo Fernández.
Note: The author’s books can be bought here.
Translated by: K. Rauch
Cubanet, 11 December 2013