READ THE WORLD – Cuba: Old Rosa by Reinaldo Arenas

old-rosa-cubaOld Rosa is one novel told in two short stories. The first is about Rosa, her life as a farmer, her marriage, and her children including her eldest son who runs of to join Castro’s rebels and her youngest son who she catches in bed with another boy. The second story finds her youngest son Arturo in one of Castro’s camps for homosexuals where he’s forced to do mind-numbing manual labour and his only escape is his imagination.

Rosa is a strong, proud and shrewd woman who works hard and expects everyone around her to do the same. She is very set in her ways and as her life goes on you see how that can be detrimental to her well-being. She doesn’t believe in what her eldest son Armando is doing by joining the rebels, she thinks it all nonsense and just focusses on her farm. She’s an interesting character as she’s not always likable but she is sympathetic as she’s often a victim of her own pride and prejudice.

Arturo writes and dreams to survive the labour camp. His mind is all over the place as he cuts down sugar cane and learns to live with the other prisoners. They all make a life for themselves, often being over the top and embracing the insults the guards throw at them. Arturo doesn’t want to be like the “queens” who wear short skirts made from palm fronds but he finds he’s a target if he tries to keep himself separate. His writing and imagination is what he clings to in the camp.

Old Rosa has a very different writing style to anything I’ve read before. Both stories have long, run on sentences with lots of commas and there’s no paragraph breaks or anything like that as well. It is the second story that really sticks out in the way it’s written, it’s 60 pages long and it’s one complete sentence. That might sound crazy but it’s true. The whole story is like Arturo’s chaotic train of thought, bouncing from one idea to another with no rest at all. This writing style made Old Rosa simultaneously quick to read as you get pulled along with the character’s thoughts, but if you needed to put the book down for whatever reason, it made it difficult to find an acceptable place to stop.

Old Rosa is a unique yet often unsettling story. Both Rosa and Arturo go through such pain and hardships and both of their imaginations are so vivid that as the reader you’re not always sure what’s real. The dreamlike state both characters find themselves in gives an unusual perspective on the Cuban Revolution and how things changed after Castro came into power.

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