Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba

by Jess

This book, Kushner’s debut, was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award in fiction.  Not surprisingly; it’s a tremendous story, filled to brimming with great characters, and of course, all the drama of that crazy Cuban Revolution thing.  The story focuses on 1950s Cuba: President Prio was overthrown, Batista is in dictatorial heaven, and the Castro brothers are rabble-rousing in the hills.  Amid the political upheaval weave the stories of hundreds of American expats working for United Fruit Company in Preston.  We follow a few of them closely: KC Sites, the privileged younger son of United Fruit’s Cuba Division; Everly Lederer, daughter of the nickle mine manager; Rachel K, a burlesque dancer pretending to be French; La Maziere, a French arms dealer and former Nazi; and various other wonderful cheating, swindling, and liquor-swilling individuals.

Kushner handles these varied personalities skillfully, interconnecting their private lives and personal struggles with the larger historical and political milieu.  Bret Anthony Johnston, in his interview with Kushner, says, “One of the riveting aspects of Telex From Cuba is how the reader knows how the story ends while the characters don’t. The discrepancy creates an immediate and lasting tension, and it also allows readers to empathize with characters whose political views may be very different from their own.”  Kushner herself says as part of her reply: “The challenge was to make real and believable characters and yet open them to their surroundings so that history could flow through them. They are politicized in that they are people living in a moment, affected by and constructed of that moment: so there’s a story not just about husbands and wives but about larger themes like social class and race, and our dominance of Latin America for much of the 20th century.”  She does this excellently.

The concept of race in any post-colonial, Caribbean context is going to be convoluted at best, but Kushner, again, handles everything so beautifully.  I was struck by the occasional and anecdotal references of how the elite Americans treat their darker-skinned neighbors — not to mention the way the Jamaicans and Haitians and Cubans treat each other in a strict caste system based on gradients of skin color.  It’s shocking at times, and several times KC excuses himself, saying it sounds strange or cruel, but that’s how things were.  The Americans are disdainful even of Batista, who was a mulatto, and they blackball him from their fancy club.  They dress up as local guajiros for costume parties by smearing dirt on their faces.  We learn about halfway through that the Stites’ Jamaican housekeeper, Annie, is actually named Josephine; KC tells us that his mother “made up” a new name for her when he was young because he could not pronounce her real one.

Of course, I was on the lookout for references to old Cuba I could connect with, but my family was from far to the east, Pinar del Rio, and this novel is set firmly in Oriente, with brief excursions to Havana.  Ah well, next time.

But that’s only a small facet of this amazingly complex, yet finely focused novel.  Hemingway, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, and Colonel Sanders all make cameos in the glittering Cuban party scene.  All that, and I’m only halfway done!  I’m excited about Kushner’s work, though, and I’ll definitely be looking up more of her stuff (Her essays and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, the Believer, Fence, Grand Street, and Bomb).  I plan to post some fine examples of her lovely prose, just to get your chops watering for more.