“Telex from Cuba” by Rachel Kushner (summer blog-a-rama)


July 15, 2013

As advertised, we’ve got multiple voices going on. So far in Part One, there are three:  a young narrator from the sugarcane family (the Stites), an exotic dancer named Rachel K, and a tomboy daughter of the nickel mine family (the Lederers). The only writing in third person is the Rachel K part.  The Stites narrative is mature and eloquent, and the Lederer narrative is puerile.

Amidst the Americanos at work in their bubble communities in segregated areas of late 50s, early 1960s Cuba, the reek of  colonialism and privilege is strong in the air. The capitalist families have a pecking order of maids and chauffeurs. The children have typical bourgeois expectations of security and material things. Except for one of the Stites’ sons, who has gone to the other side. Out in the fields, the hard work of cutting cane is handled by Jamaicans, who along with boatloads of imported Haitians, do the dirty work.

Meanwhile, revolution is advancing in the hills of Cuba. Guerrilla fighters are burning the cane fields and raising hell with capitalism. The imported Americano families are reluctantly freaking out, and the country’s military generals are in denial. The very real Raúl and Fidel Castro are around, as are President Prio and the returning scoundrel Fulgencio Batista, plus cameo mentions of historical American figures like Henry Cabot Lodge.

Kushner, part Cuban-American, built this book on her maternal family’s history plus lots of research and her own vivid imagination as a novelist. She is painting the picture for us in bits and pieces, weaving in facts and keeping up dramatic narratives. So far, her imagery is not as luxuriant as it is in Flame Throwers. But in this novel, she’s a much more interesting storyteller. Parts of the narrative jump in time and between characters, but overall the story pushes forward in a fluid and logical direction. The impacts are less strident, subtler than in Flame Throwers.

Readers are getting a central image from the very start, based on color. The green fields of Cuba are quickly turning red.

July 24, 2013

The cast builds as the eponymous Havana character, dancer-courtesan Rachel K, finds a man of interest, a French political fink. Meanwhile, back on the other end of Cuba, around Nicaro and Preston, more American families and their children are coming into the corporate jungle. The air is rust-colored and foul with the dust of nickel ore. The Allains are countrified and Joad-like, sticking to themselves on a self-sufficient lot next to the factory. The noveaux riche-minded Carringtons and the structured, upper management type Lederers try to live like they are back in the U.S. but they aren’t.

Part One leaves us with the ugly image of a monkey raging inside its cage, in contrast to the one the Lederer girl fabricated as her pet in Cuba and bragged about to her stateside friends.

Part Two opens with a sensational Kushner chapter depicting a dinner party for the managers and the ambassador, held at a dilapidated lodge along a humid river. The American couples drink heavily, especially Mrs Carrington who is an accident waiting to happen. Suffering in the heat, trying to make a social scene out of a rustic get-together, the only ones to keep their cool are Mrs. Mackey and perhaps the ambassador himself, who couldn’t care less that the food is bad or the lodge is a dump. The corporate wives put on quite a show and dominate the extended scene the author has put together for us. (She will do a similar long dinner party scene in The Flame Throwers, see my review). Once again Kushner presents us with an indelible image:

“The Cuban women draped their furs down around their lower backs. Perspiration beaded on their upper lips, caking their makeup and giving their décolleté a particular, reflectant glow. They looked to Tip Carrington as delicious as bowls of ice cream beginning to melt. Something you better lap up quickly, before it puddles.”

Local violence as represented by a cockfight is simmering in the realities of culture warfare. The new character Willy, a local Haitian overachiever, seems the only one with his act together. In the club where she dances, Rachel K is waist-deep in the insurgency, and as Part Two closes, her friend La Maziere predicts a possible violent end to her life.

July 31-Aug 1, 2013

Seeing Hemingway in the novel’s cast of characters, downing daiquiris at La Floridita bar, wasn’t a surprise.  He of course was The celebrity resident in Cuba during the Batista/Castro transition (not long before his departure and eventual suicide in Idaho). The portrayal of the old guy produces mixed reactions. Is the dialog rooted in any sort of hearsay or is it completely made up? Are we to assume that Papa is brainless at this point, jabbering about la pachanga and asking men to dance? Is that an insult, that last one? Or a commentary on how Papa suspects Cubans and their visiting elite are getting soft? It happens twice, from two narrative viewpoints. I’m not convinced Kushner made a great value add to the story.  The depiction of E.H. can be viewed as colorful and comic, or emblematic of the country’s divided sense of values, or as a mini-slam of his writing (“lots of humping and I’s”) – a gratuitous swipe at his legend. Maybe it’s something even deeper in Kushner’s layered scheme, like many things in this book. Take your pick.

Risk-taking is a trait of the novelist, and we get another injection of celebrity-related history with the appearance of Desi Arnaz’ niece, who is a robust young teenage girl who puts the hormone hustle on the Stites boy. He is overpowered by her standing there, swimsuit at her ankles, and can’t close the deal. Gratuitous maybe, but another memorably written vignette in the large canvas of Part 3, which includes entertaining and scandal-ridden events, as well as politically earth-shaking ones. Who ever said the middle parts of a book have to be dull? Kushner is on her game on every single page.

Now Fidel’s rebels are coming out big time, trick or treat. The guerrillas send rats into the cane field with their tails tied with kerosene-soaked torches. Planes drop ping pong ball bombs loaded with phosphor. Other rebels appear in Nipe Bay with their slung carbines to greet the corporate Americans and take hostages. At the rebel camp in the mountains, we follow La Maziere who gets a cringe-worthy nighttime napsack visit by a most unexpected guest (which made me think of Roberto Jordan and Maria, wishing for that old Hemingway romantic innocence in portraying warfare camps). The older Stites boy, Del,  is now a leftist Comandante filled with tactical ideas, and is eager to show his own family who’s boss. An interesting aspect Kushner gives us (obviously she did a lot of research) is how revolutionaries handle such a personal situation, how they can cleverly divert attention from the obvious expectation and get their point across in another, unexpected way.

Cuba’s Rural Guard appears to be impotent against the revolution, sort of unexpectedly stunned like young KC Stites with the naked Arnaz girl.  Denial persists among the Americans, who continue to party and call the revolutionary activities a passing thing.  But as the terrorism escalates, and Batista is duped into bombing Nicaro, the Americans’ fears are growing. We know the inevitable attempt to flee is coming.

At this point in the book Kushner’s multiple narrative POVs are merging, overlapping, and effectively harmonizing. It’s a beautiful exhibit of writing skill that extends until the end.