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Reinaldo Arenas: El mundo alucinante (Hallucinations)

Arenas had a hard time with this book. It was first written in 1965 and won a prize in Cuba but could not be published in Cuba. It was smuggled out and published in Mexico (in Spanish) and in France (in French) in 1969. For this, Arenas was arrested and imprisoned. It is difficult to see now why the Cuban government would object to as book about the wanderings of 18th/19th century priest, who seems to be critical of religion and, in particular, of Spain but then I don’t pretend to understand the motivations of oppressive regimes.

The book recounts the adventures of the very real Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, a Mexican priest. Servando de Mier is best known for putting forward the idea that St. Thomas preached Christianity in the Americas nearly 1500 years before the Spanish did and that the Virgin of Guadalupe was, in fact, imprinted on St. Thomas’ cape and not first seen by Juan Diego in 1531. The significance of this is profound, as the Spanish justified their presence in the Americas as being necessary to bring Christianity to the native population. If Christianity was already there, the Spanish presence was no longer justified.

Some critics have pointed out that had Arenas been born elsewhere in Latin America than in Cuba, he might have been recognised as one of the early users of magic realism. This book was written two years before Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude). Not only does he use magic realism but post-modernism is also prevalent. However, the main style is picaresque; perhaps post-modern picaresque would be the best description. The story follows Fray Servando de Mier after he learns about and preaches the St. Thomas story. He is, of course, reviled, thrown into prison and nearly burned at the stake. He just manages to escape death but is sent to Spain. From there we follow his adventures which go from bad to worse, though somehow he always come through. For example, his ship to Spain is captured by pirates. He slaves for them but then they throw him overboard. Fortunately, a giant whale passes by, destroys the ship and all the crew and gives him a ride on its back. His adventures take him to Europe, which he doesn’t really like, but he particularly dislikes Spain and the Spanish, though he has little time for England, Italy and Portugal. He spends much time in prison but also travels around, swimming, for example, through a lake of semen in the King of Spain’s garden and meeting the Duke of Godoy, Charles IV of Spain, Lady Hamilton (he had witnessed Nelson’s death at Trafalgar), Alexander von Humboldt and even a young Simón Bolivar, who sets out on his path as a liberator, only thanks to the influence of de Mier! From England he goes to the United States, which also does not meet with his favour as, according to de Mier, they even tax the air that you breathe. Then he tries to get together a group of men to liberate Mexico but that – at least initially – is a failure and he is made to walk across the hot Mexican desert, which he somehow survives. It all – sort of – ends well for the friar but not before Arenas has given us a very fantastic, very funny and very well-written picaresque story.

Publishing history

First published in 1969 by Editorial Diógenes, Mexico City
First English translation 1971 by Jonathan Cape
Translated by Gordon Brotherston (UK edition), Andrew Hurley (US edition)