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Reinaldo Arenas: La loma del angel (Graveyard of the Angels)

The most important Cuban novel of the 19th century is probably Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés. This novel is a straightforward indictment of slavery. Arenas has taken this text and written a superb what if? pastiche, subversion, mockery of the original. Whatever it is – and even if you haven’t read the original – it is wickedly funny, a nasty bit of satire and it even has bits of postmodernism and magic realism thrown in for good measure.

Don Cándido de Gamboa has been fooling around with the attractive mulatta, Rosario. She is now pregnant and is expecting him to marry her. Not a chance. He dumps her so that he can marry the rich Rosa. Rosario goes insane and is locked away, while her daughter grows up to be the beautiful but wayward Cecilia Valdés. Meanwhile Cándido and Rosa have three daughters and a son. The son – Leonardo – is the apple of his mother’s eye. Indeed, she is clearly attracted to him sexually while Cándido despises his son and loves his daughters. However, like father, like son and Leonardo has an affair with Cecilia. Both are, of course, unaware that they are half-brother and -sister. Cecilia, of course, like her mother, is expecting Leonardo to marry her, which he promises to do, even while he is being (willingly) set up with Isabella Ilincheta, whose father owns a coffee plantation which Isabella runs with clockwork efficiency. Rosa finds out about Cándido’s love child and orders her black slave to have sex with her and produces a black child as some sort of revenge. Cecilia finds out about Leonardo’s marriage to Isabel and gets José Dolores, who loves her (and who, in turn, is incestuously loved by his sister), to kill Isabella.

What makes this book are two things. The exaggerated cruelty towards slaves is both horrible and done as pure satire. The English have stopped the import of slaves but Cándido and others are trying to get round that. Indeed, one of the funny scenes is when there is a plot to kill the British consul and the captain of the ship that is blockading Havana to prevent the import of slaves. The plot goes horribly wrong and the Brits survive but most of the Gamboa family and the high society of Cuba are killed. Other brilliantly funny scenes are the steam engine on the Ilincheta coffee plantation which blasts the slaves trying to mend it far into the distance. All the slaves immediately think that it is sending them back to Africa and clamber on to it, with obvious results. The wedding of Leonardo and Isabella is also wonderful, with José Dolores surreptitiously murdering Leonardo (and not Isabella) in the cathedral. Isabella, who will get the Gamboa property only if she is married and has a child, proceeds not only to fake Leonardo’s wedding vows but to have sex with him on the altar in front of the assembled congregation, as he dies. Arenas even has one plot complication resolved by the entire family seeking out Cirilo Villaverde, author of the original, to resolve the matter. He cannot. Arenas resolves it all but has left us with brilliantly funny work.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by DADOR, Barcelona
First English translation 1987 by Avon