Susann Cokal reviews Rachel Kushner’s TELEX FROM CUBA for The New York Times. The book, which I just read, has weathered well since it was first published in 2008.
In the early 1950s, a doll called Scribbles shook up the toy industry. Her face had no features of its own but could be sketched on with a special marker, washed clean and drawn on again. Creepy as this may sound, she’s a handy metaphor for creating a self in an uncertain environment like the one in Rachel Kushner’s multilayered and absorbing first novel, “Telex From Cuba.” Here a little American girl plays with her Scribbles the way Madame Defarge knits, while the international drifters around her settle in to bury pasts that include murder, adultery and neurotic meltdown. Meanwhile, Cuba itself is being remade; President Prio is replaced by the Americans’ favorite, Batista, and the Castro brothers gather revolutionaries in the hills of Oriente Province.
For the last half-century, Cuba has been America’s cultural Other, a nearby example of what capitalists dread most (Communism! revolution! beards!). But before that, it was America’s outpost. Most of Kushner’s story takes place in the sweltering canebrakes and comfortable homes of the expatriates who run the
United Fruit Company and prosperous nickel mines of Oriente Province. A large cast of latter-day colonials employ Cubans in their homes and import Jamaican workers for the hardest jobs; they dab on expensive Jean Patou Colony perfume, mix as little as possible with the natives — including Batista, who’s a mulatto — and pride themselves on treating hirelings better than they think they have to.
Surprisingly, racism turns out to be a two-way street, even in a country where the United Fruit Company controls the roads: Cubans think Americans are mongrels.
The expats further separate themselves into classes, represented here by the elite Stiteses, the oddball middle-class Lederers and the violent Allains, poor refugees from Louisiana. Class and race may be, as one character describes the Tropic of Cancer, “divisions on a surface that is indifferent to … borders, that can hold no object in place” — but the only society the Americans can imagine is one based on those divisions, and to them every American’s status in Cuba is higher than in the United States. Cue the revolution and disaster.
Kushner’s title is somewhat misleading; the novel’s real draws are its complex relationships and well-researched cultural context, not the big telex-worthy events. Key rebellions like the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks in distant Santiago de Cuba go virtually unnoticed in the American enclaves, but Kushner’s sharp observations about human nature and colonialist bias provide a deep understanding of the revolution’s causes. The chief observers in Oriente are children: K. C. Stites, who narrates his chapters from the perspective of old age and paradise lost, and Everly Lederer, an awkward, bookish girl with Coke-bottle glasses whose idea of the tropics comes from “Treasure Island.” They reveal, of course, far more than they understand. Through their friendships and crushes — K. C. for Everly, Everly for a black houseboy — Kushner shows how the classes and races might be connected if the adult world were put together differently. In the children’s fluid worldview, it’s easy to see why young Americans both cling to luxury and sympathize with the rebels in the hills; K. C.’s brother even runs off to join the Castros, much to his parents’ dismay.
When Kushner’s focus pulls away from childhood and looks through grown-up eyes, some nastier (and juicier) secrets are revealed. Every suburb breeds its own hell. While many of the American wives drink far too much, the most attractive among them suffers from such insecurity that she drifts into an affair with a Cuban whoremonger and nickel miner who treats her as shabbily as he does his workers. Other Americans speculate about the man’s homosexuality, but then they also suspect the Castros; Raúl is considered “a fruity type” (a shameless pun, given that Oriente is run largely by the United Fruit Company). And even K. C.’s father, a gentleman so proper that he wears a white suit jacket to fight a fire, has torrid liaisons.
One of these affairs leads to Havana and an underworld as boldly stylized as it would be in an Ian Fleming novel. Here a Cuban exotic dancer (posing as French) flirts with a Frenchman (mistaken for German) who is clearly up to something. La Mazière, the Frenchman, is an arms broker, memoirist and sexual adventurer once in collusion with the Nazi SS; he considers killing to be “a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved.” Rachel K, the dancer (not to be confused with the author, who is also a Rachel K), is a human Scribbles who paints faux fishnet stockings on her legs and pretends to be whatever a man wants. She charms many of the great men of Cuba, including presidents, the Castro brothers and K. C.’s father. The Castros will eventually tap her for a small role, heavy on seduction, in their rebellion.
This part of the novel reads like a thriller, and a rather good one, but with mood, pacing and characterization markedly different from the other story lines. Whereas the Oriente sections peel back layers of manners and status to reveal unexpected truths about the characters, the Havana chapters show us mostly what we expect from rabble-rousers and prostitutes. The good-looking principal players (like the plainer denizens of Oriente) carry the burden of complicated pasts and try to carve out something of their own amid capitalist decadence and, in turn, revolutionary chaos. They seem to be having more fun at it. But the spy story doesn’t quite fit tonally with what feels like the heart of the book. When the usually straight La Mazière ends up in a rebel camp in Oriente, roughing it in a tent and accepting the sexual attentions of Fidel Castro (and thereby confirming, at least for the reader, other characters’ suspicions about the Castros’ loosely defined sexuality), the moment feels forced; we didn’t quite need to go there.
The real story is about making connections among classes, provinces, individuals. But even K. C. — the only first-person narrator, and the only viewpoint with the advantage of decades to ponder what he’s seen — fails to make some crucial leaps. When he describes the awful boats that bring Jamaican workers to Oriente, he might be describing the slave ships of a century earlier, but he doesn’t quite see them that way. He seems truly to believe in the Americans’ basic goodness, as he believes in his parents’ gentility and the lower classes’ desire to live without luxuries. But refusing to grant K. C. a complete politically correct epiphany is one of Kushner’s cleverest moves; that niggling sense of dots not connected, a likable character’s complicity in a terrible system, feels as truthful as it is unsettling. No one in this environment is capable of complete understanding. Even in the middle of their tenure there, the Americans are as ignorant about the real Cuba as they’ll be after the Castro brothers’ triumph.
Kushner herself evinces an intimate knowledge of her novel’s world and characters. Her style is sure and sharp, studded with illuminating images: In Oriente, “the wind gusted like a personality”; Everly, newly arrived in a new dress, “felt like a tea doily, damp and frilly and out of place,” while La Mazière thinks of Havana as “a damp city where dreams were marbled with nothingness.” When we first see Rachel K, she’s flying above sugar cane fields with K. C.’s father, “a person who was dangerous because he didn’t know which parts of him were rotten, or even that he harbored rot.” These are potent moments, and they make the novel a dreamy, sweet-tart meditation on a vanished way of life and a failed attempt to make the world over in America’s image. Out of tropical rot, Kushner has fashioned a story that will linger like a whiff of decadent Colony perfume.
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/books/review/Cokal-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0