Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Read: Telex from Cuba

Due to be released on July 1, Rachel Kushner’s first novel Telex from Cuba is in part a portrait of the American community at Preston (now going by the unlikely name of Guatemala) and Nicaro in the 1950’s. It is a world unto itself, existing tangentially alongside that inhabited by Cubans. In point of fact, with the exception of the risqué dancer/loose woman with painted-on fishnets and a slimy and duplicitous investor, there are few Cuban characters in the novel.

One early reviewer has called it a “postcard,” perhaps because it leaves the reader with the glancing sensation of having touched someone else’s temporary sojourn in paradise. The point of view here, however, with its multiple narrators makes the experience more like that of picking up an old album, blowing the dust off the cover, and peeking at moments frozen in time. Much here rings true, perhaps because Ms. Kushner’s own mother grew up in these circles. Overall, as with much literature set in Cuba in the revolutionary years, there is an abiding sense of loss.

That is not to say that the Cuba of that era is presented as a utopia. Far from it, if anything, the novel errs in giving a skewed presentation by concentrating on poverty, social injustice, corruption, and general licentiousness. But then, that is how they saw us. Overall, what contact did they have with the Cuban community at large? I know my father, despite having letters of introduction, sat in the Americano Mr. Bienvenue’s office for three days waiting to see the great man before he threw up his hands in disgust and left for greener pastures.

However, Ms. Kushner’s achievement in this novel is that its time and place recedes into a greater probing of innocence and the consequences of its loss. There is the perverse innocence of the American enclave and its inhabitants, its strange blend of sophistication, social stratification, and cluelessness. There is the coming of age with its attendant losses of young KC Stites, whose father runs the United Fruit operation in Preston, and Everly Lederer, whose father is a lesser executive at the mine in Nicaro, both of whom come closest to approximating any sort of main character. There is the long lost innocence of Rachel K, abandoned at a “shimmy bar” as an adolescent and that of her sometime lover, gun-runner and former French Nazi La Maziere.

There is even young Del Stites’ flirtation with the revolution. The passionate believer who takes to the mountains and aids in setting his father’s operation aflame quickly abandons the revolution when he witnesses first hand its atrocities upon seizing power. I’m left with the thought that millions of Cubans did not have that option.

In the end, Kushner weaves the multiple threads of her narrative into a lyrical panorama that, as she writes about the eye, “both reflects and refracts the sky on which it gazes.” I really enjoyed this one. More info here.

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