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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Telex From Cuba


Cuba pre-revolution is catnip for writers and filmmakers, and with good reason, as Castro and his rebels stuck it to not only Batista, but to the foundations of American capitalism. It's a natural for storytellers. That's why I found myself disappointed with Rachel Kushner's novel on the subject, Telex From Cuba.

The jacket copy tells us that Kushner's mother grew up in Cuba during the period, in an American enclave in Oriente, the eastern-most part of the island, which was basically run by United Fruit since the American takeover following the Spanish-American War. Of course they ran it like a fiefdom, living in lavish quarters while the employees did long, backbreaking labor while living in squalor. Castro may be a son of a bitch, but it's hard not to root for him when you hear about what conditions were like for poor Cubans in those days.

Kushner's book is a game attempt, but I think falls short for a few reasons. For one, she tells the story from too many points of view. We hear mostly from the Americans who lived in Cuba, employees of United Fruit or a nickel mine. One voice is told in first person, that of K.C. Stites, who is a teenage boy and the son of the head honcho of United Fruit. He tells his story in a series of discrete anecdotes, sort of a Tom Sawyer in Cuba. His older brother has run off into the hills to join the rebels. Everly Lederer is a young girl, something of an outcast, whom K.C. has a bit of crush on. Then there's twin girls, who though American, have lived their whole lives in foreign countries. Kushner does do a nice job of giving us the sense of dislocation of these permanent expatriates.

Much of the rest of the book is given to a French adventurer and gun-runner, Christian de La Maziere, who was a Nazi collaborator. He ends up with the rebels in the hills as a kind of consultant. He's also in love, up to a point, with a mysterious go-go dancer and courtesan who lives in Havana. Kushner gives this character the name Rachel K, which is her own name and first initial, which creates interesting questions.

Secondly, I found the prose flat. As I said, it's a lot of separate incidents, which don't quite hang together. There's also a problem with the timeline. Most of the book takes place in 1958 and 1959, but there are some flashbacks to 1952. Some of the chapters have time stamps before them, but some don't, and I wondered where I was in time much of the time.

The end of the book, in which Stites recollects things from his retirement in Tampa, has a bit of poignancy, but not nearly enough. Frankly I found this book a yawn.

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