Friday, May 1, 2015

Rachel Kushner: Telex from Cuba

Worth savoring for this historical novelist 
of grace, intelligence, and style

     I wanted to read Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba (2008) after I’d liked her The Flamethrowers (2013) so much.  I thought it was one of the best novels I’d read in the past decade.  She writes big, taking on a subject, its era and locale, and then goes one step further to place it in an international
context.  She did this with the art world of the 1970s centered in New York City before linking it to the American political radicalism of the 1960s and the European radicalism of the 1970s in Flamethrowers.  In Telex, she recreates the American expatriate (or should I say late colonial) experience in Cuba during the 1950s from the waning presidency of Prio through the revolutionary ascendancy of Castro.

     It’s a lot to bite off, especially in a novel that isn’t saga length (322 pages in the Scribner paperback edition).  She uses multiple narrators in first person and third person limited omniscience so that the reader connects to specific parts of the story, rather than a grand, sweeping overview of history with an omniscient third person narrator.  Because of this method, she then links the main events in the politically unsettled Cuba to a French agent provocateur that collaborated with the Nazis at the end of World War II and the eventual fate of many of the characters more than forty years after the overthrow of Batista.  

President Carlos Prio of Cuba
     Kushner never backs off from showing that ‘American economic interests’ superseded the working and living conditions for many Cubans, which was a primary reason behind Castro’s revolution.  The representative of those interests – American business and governmental – played all sides of the game with Batista, Castro, and, to a much lesser extent, Prio in order to retain power.  She also shows the American class system at work in the United Fruit Company – the main supplier of sugar harvested from cane – in the Oriente Province.  The east coast and Midwestern college-educated administer the business for ‘the interests’, while the southern cracker with the incredibly energetic and entertaining family acts as an updated plantation overseer.

The United Fruit Company
     She’s able to create compelling characters in a couple of scenes, from the various Americans to a Cuban dancer-prostitute that seems to work for all sides to the Cuban and Jamaican servants.  It’s an ensemble piece, even though it seems like will be a coming of age story for the ‘tween-adolescent K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer (he narrates at times, while Kushner seems to identify with Everly, even though she keeps her at a limited omniscient distance).
Many of the secondary characters, such as the Carrington family members, are intriguing, but none of the characters is as electrifying as the protagonist of Flamethrowers.   She’s gutsy, though, in introducing Fidel Castro in a scene that’s extremely unexpected and bizarrely adult.  

     Where I think Kushner has to be reckoned a major (and potentially great) writer is in her style.  It’s the golden literary arrow in her quiver.  It’s elegant, seductive, and sometimes more informative than it may first appear.  She sets out the main themes of the novel in her first paragraph when the seven-year old Everly sails toward Cuba with her family in 1952:

There it was on the globe, a dashed line of darker blue on the lighter blue Atlantic. Words in faint italic script:  Tropic of Cancer.  The adults told her to stop asking what it was, as if the dull reply they gave would satisfy:  “A latitude, in this case twenty-three and a half degrees.”  She pictured daisy chains of seaweed stretching across the water toward a distant horizon.  On the globe were different shades of blue wrapping around the continent in layers.  But how could there be geographical zones in the sea, which belongs to no country?  Divisions on a surface that is indifferent to rain, to borders, that can hold no object in place?

     The major themes of the novel such as class and economic disenfranchisement, the capriciousness of geopolitical needs as they relate to personal intimate relationships, and the concept of home versus dislocation are apparent in that paragraph once I’d read the whole thing.  Kushner’s style and subject remind me of Shirley Hazzard, an acclaimed and award-winning writer who’s been around for forty-five years and takes a while between finishing her extraordinary works, who also deserves a much wider readership.

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