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Reinaldo Arenas: Celestino antes del alba (republished as Cantando en el pozo) (Singing from the Well)

This book sold out within a week when first published in Cuba. It has never been republished in that country since. What frightened the Castro regime was not the homosexuality – that did not appear till his later works – but the fact that this book is far from realist, using magic realism before the others were using it.

This book does not have a pleasant story to tell. It is set in rural Cuba and is narrated by an unnamed boy. The narrator lives on his maternal grandparents’ farm, with his grandparents, his mother and his cousin, Celestino. Various aunts occasionally show up. The narrator has never met his father who, to the family’s great shame, dumped his mother on her father’s doorstep when she was pregnant. The grandfather is particularly abusive, perpetually shouting at and striking his wife, his daughter and his grandsons. This is passed down as both the narrator’s grandmother and mother are often similarly abusive. The boy has a love-hate relationship with his mother, both wanting to be her little boy while trying to evade her abuse.

But there is a way out. Both boys (the narrator and Celestino) are sensitive lads. Celestino writes poetry, carving it on trees, which his grandfather then chops down. The boys do boy things – playing in the river and wandering around the farm – but they also turn to fantasy. They talk quite openly to various animals, see a variety of ghosts and spirits and converse with some of them and imagine various events, often involving assault and attack by the adults on the farm. Indeed, the image of death permeates their lives. For example, they build a castle by the river and then realize that they have forgotten the most important part, a cemetery. They proceed to build a cemetery, which ends up bigger than the castle. They even face death themselves, when there is a severe drought and the whole family faces starvation. The book ends with a playlet featuring the mother singing in the well (hence the English title) and a chorus of dead aunts and cousins and witches defending her and her son from the grandparents.

Publishing history

First published in 1967 by Ediciones Unión, Havana
First English translation 1987 by Viking