The Doorman, by Reinaldo Arenas – Book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
The Doorman, by Reinaldo Arenas. Translated from the Spanish by Dolores M. Koch.
NYC, Grove Weidenfeld, June 1991, hardcover 0-8021-1109-2 $17.95 (191 pages).
Reinaldo Arenas was a young Cuban novelist known for both novels of “magical realism” and a flamboyant homosexual life style. The Castro regime, notoriously anti-homosexual, imprisoned and tortured him, and finally exiled him as part of the Mariel boatlift of 1980. He wrote several critically-acclaimed novels, plays, and collections of poetry in New York during the 1980s. In 1987 he contracted AIDS and, giving in to worsening health, committed suicide in 1990.
The Doorman (El Portero) was published in 1987 but not translated into English until after his death. It was described as a semi-autobiographical surrealist fantasy; reviewers threw the terms “magical realism”, “sardonic Swiftian parable”, and “fabulist” around a lot. Juan, an idealistic young Cuban exile, ends up in New York City (just like Arenas). He eventually gets a position as a doorman at an exclusive luxury Manhattan apartment building. Juan is an overzealous idealist who appoints himself to be a friend of each of the tenants, with a mission to help them open a mystical “door to true happiness” (pg. 6). Alas, the tenants are all self-centered elitists who ignore him. But each tenant has a pet, and the pets listen to his message.
Both the tenants and their pets are grotesque parodies:
“Let us now introduce quickly and concisely (for we are all very busy and cannot spend the rest of our lives on this) the tenants with whom our doorman somehow managed to relate.
These are the most outstanding: Mr. Roy Friedman, a gentleman some sixty-five years old – the ‘candy man’ in Juan’s diary, because he always had one in his mouth and more in his pockets, and every time he met the doorman, which was naturally several times a day, he gave him a piece of candy.
Dr. Joseph Rozeman, a famous dental engineer, thanks to whom many of the most beautiful television and movie stars display glamorous smiles.” (pgs. 7-8)
Etc. at varying lengths for eleven more tenants. Each tenant is then profiled:
“When Mr. Roy Friedman invited the doorman to his apartment for the first time, Juan thought his mission was well under way. Now he only needed to convince Mr. Friedman to join him in the quest for that true door. But Mr. Friedman had his own philosophy too, his secret door through which he wanted to push anyone who came close enough to him. Like all self-assured people, Mr. Freidman did not listen, he just talked: he would not take advice, he gave it.
Juan was ready to thank him for such an exceptional honor when a huge dog came into the living room and began to sniff the doorman with apparent disgust.
‘Come here, Vigilante,’ Mr. Friedman commanded the gigantic dog, and taking out of his pocket a bone-shaped piece of candy, offered it to the dog. The animal took it reluctantly but dutifully, and went off to chew it in a corner. While doing this he glanced at the doorman, who thought he saw a kind of resigned sadness in those eyes.
‘Your dog is so well trained,’ commented Juan, watching the poor animal trying to swallow the gooey candy.
‘Yes,’ continued Mr. Friedman, without having listened to Juan’s words, ‘you are the first doorman to enter my home. Something exceptional. […].’” (pgs. 10-11))
After describing the tenants at length, come their pets:
“As always at this time, the tenants started coming down to take their pets for their evening walk.
The first to go out was Mr. Friedman, with his huge, sad-eyed dog, chewing (just like his master) some gooey confection. Inevitably, as he went through the door, Mr. Friedman bestowed upon the doorman his traditional piece of candy. Then came Dr. Rozeman with his three elegant lady-dogs, whose special ability continued to surprise Juan: instead of growling, these animals seemed to laugh and, topping this, they flashed such white, even teeth that their smiles looked definitely human …. Displaying his usual boisterousness, Mr. Lockpez appeared with his family and almost all his household menagerie: caged birds, cats and dogs pulling at their leashes, bugs in bottles, and even the two turtles, shell-to-shell, slowly ending the procession. […]” (p. 34)
The narrative begins to get fantastic at this point, as the progression of pets include five dancing chihuahuas, an orangutan, a trained bear, a rattlesnake, and other exotic beasts.
At first the pets become involved in unlikely but possible situations:
“‘It’s true, they’ve disappeared. But this doesn’t mean that they’re dead or in jail. They are simply in another dimension now, on their own planet. Because they were extraterrestrials.’
That was how Mr. Walter Skirius, the inventor, calmly explained the whole thing to our doorman.
‘That must be it,’ asserted Juan not only because, as a doorman, he could never contradict the tenants, but because he liked to support Mr. Skirius’s theories for being so daring, as most of them were.
‘Nowhere in the history of zoology,’ pronounced Mr. Skirius, ‘will you find a natural ape with the intelligence and loyalty displayed by Mr. Makadam’s orangutan. Obviously, he is an android or electronic robot made by beings from another planet.’” (p. 43)
Gradually the pets predominate:
“During the rest of that evening, the thirty-first of December of 1990, our doorman lay in his room, unable to fall asleep. It still seemed incredible to him that he had actually heard a dog talk. So, even though he did not sleep at all, when he got up he thought he had had a nightmare. To find out whether that was true, he returned to the building where he worked and, at ten o’clock sharp, went down to the basement, hoping to find it deserted.
But it wasn’t. In spite of his strict punctuality, all the animals from the building and surrounding areas were already there waiting for him. There was a momentary hush as Juan entered, until Cleopatra [a regal dog] broke the silence by addressing the guest:
‘I do not think it necessary to introduce my friends to you: you know many of them and the rest you will get to know very soon. Besides, we have little time, and not a moment to lose. The reason we have invited you to this meeting is this: We have all noticed how concerned you are for the people who live in this building, but we have never seen you take the same interest in us.’
‘Neither the same nor any at all!’ broke in Brenda Hill’s cat, arched and bristling.
‘You can’t say that,’ interceded one of the mongrel females belonging to Mr. Lockpez. ‘He has run his hand over my spine several times.’” (p. 115)
Finally on page 105 the animals begin to talk, and they never shut up for the rest of the novel, even after the tenants notice Juan talking to their pets and have him committed to a mental asylum. The animals band together to escape the apartment, break Juan out of the asylum, and disappear with him.
“Six more days of flying, sliding, hopping, and all, and they reached Cincinnati. Another week of journeying, and they were in St. Louis, where spring was in full bloom. Needless to say, the orangutan and the bear and even the birds helped carry the slower animals. Hundreds of doves and pigeons would get together and lift the lizards and the snakes into the air; the parrots, joined by many others along the way, grasped the fishbowl and the turtles in their talons, and they all flew together over the highest mountains.” (p. 181)
As they go, the group of animals grows larger. “When they reached the equator, the thunderous stampede was deafening.” (p. 188)
By this time it has been revealed that this novel is the animals’ manifesto to humanity.
“We hope that this document (all forty chapters, to be exact), intelligently used, could serve as a warning for those who do not respect our exile community, or for those who have refused to take us seriously. Better be forewarned: At present we are the sole possessors of a secret lethal weapon.” (p. 189)
Is Juan their spokesperson or their prisoner? As the novel ends, we are still waiting to find out.
Arenas’ literature is respected in the Cuban expatriate and in the East Coast avant-garde literary communities, but he did not write any other anthropomorphic fantasies. The Doorman’s cover is by Anne Bascove, also a member of NYC’s intellectual community with numerous exhibitions of her paintings in galleries and art museums.
– by Fred Patten