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The Palace of the White Skunks.

One of the most important dissident Cuban novelists, Reinaldo Arenas captures in much of his work the violent, claustrophobic atmosphere of prerevolutionary Cuba. Through a compendium of impressionistic images, monologues, dialogues, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and dream sequences, The Palace of the White Skunks tells the story of a peasant family caught in the grip of poverty and hopelessness.

There is no idealization of the common man here. Polo, the grandfather, escapes a treacherous existence in Canarias only to find misery in Cuba. Duped by his son-in-law, he sells the family farm and moves to town, where conditions are even worse. Angry, depressed, and guilt-ridden, he takes refuge in silence, punishing his family by refusing to talk. His reproachful wife Jacinta finds solace in religion bordering on fetichism, while at the same time brutalizing her grandchildren. Eldest daughter Adolfina, a fiftyish spinster who aches for a man, tortures the others by holing up in the family's only bathroom for hours, then finally takes to the streets in an unsuccessful search for a lover. Her sister Cecilia, whose only child, Esther, died of poisoning, slips into madness. Digna, abandoned with two children by her husband Moises, follows in Cecilia's footsteps, as will Tico and Anisia, her offspring. Onerica escapes to New York, leaving behind her feeble-minded son, Fortunato, who eventually runs off to join the rebels during the Revolution. This acrimonious lot takes out its frustrations and bitterness by lashing out. Violence and insanity are the family's only escapes.

Like many contemporary writers, Arenas abandons traditional chronology; scenes from the 1950s are juxtaposed with others from the 30s and 40s. The jumble of fragments and the confusion of time frames help to create the feeling of chaos and hysteria that dominates the book. A kind of poetry is derived from the repetition of phrases and images.

In this household of madmen, cranks, and unwanted children, the lines between life and death, sanity and insanity, reality and fantasy disappear. Death is a palpable presence. Death plays in the patio with the wheel of a bicycle or clamors through the house. Fortunato frolics with the dead Esther, who also communicates with Cecilia.

For the wretched human beings that Arenas depicts, the Revolution represents a means of escape more than an ideological commitment. Fortunato's friends are as apt to join the government forces as they are the rebels. Fortunato, who is struggling with his emerging homosexuality and his feelings of rejection, believes himself to be misfit. Perhaps he is looking for a sense of belonging among the revolutionaries; perhaps he is looking for Death. In any case, he never gets to fight with the insurgents, whom Arenas depicts as a scraggly band of ruffians so ill equipped that they cannot take in volunteers who fail to supply their own weapons. Ironically, Fortunato is captured and tortured by government soldiers before he even gets to the rebel camp.

Obsessed with death since early childhood, it is finally in death that he achieves a sense of liberation. In his only real act of self-assertion, Fortunato defies his captors, knowing that he will be shot and that when the bullet pierces his body he will explode: "Like a star plunging to earth from its apogee." That explosion, which will turn him into "a million tiny burning particles polluting the earth," will be his moment of glory--a burst of brilliance to be followed by nothingness.

Arenas was born in 1943 and lived in the United States from 1982 until his recent death. Until now, his most significant novel was considered to be Otra vez el mar (Farewell to the Sea) (1982), another scathing condemnation of the Revolution. Andrew Hurley's translation of El palacio de las blanquisimas mofetas adds to the growing list of Arenas' novels now available to English-speaking readers. Although one might quibble over a word or two, Hurley has done a brilliant job of rendering into English an extremely difficult work.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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