“There it was on the globe, a dashed line of darker blue on the lighter blue of the Atlantic.” — Telex From Cuba, Rachel Kushner
This wonderfully atmospheric novel begins begins with a young American girl, Everly, trying to imagine crossing the Tropic of Cancer as she moves with her family to Cuba for her father’s job overseeing a Nicaro nickel mine shortly before the Cuban revolution in the 1950s. Her only frame of reference for this monumental life change is a line on the globe, colors she imagines the sea looks like, and stories from books like Treasure Island. She cannot imagine the landscape she will encounter, climate, inhabitants, or culture of her home-to-be, let alone the seething unrest of the Cubans towards US sugar and mining interests.
Neither can her parents who are simply enticed by economic opportunity. The Americans who run these companies live in privileged willful ignorance of their exploitation of the Cuban people, the landscape, and the coming revolutionary tide and run the current Cuban political leader like a peon. Of course, we the readers have the gift of hindsight, history books, and the wide-eyed innocence of several naive narrators.
Two of the narrators are children–Everly and KC , the son of the powerful cane sugar plantation boss–and others are a sheltered, insecure American housewife who has an affair with a Cuban politico and imagines it love, a cabaret dancer and whore to the dictators in power, and a French revolutionary who comes to Cuba to help foment the coming rebellion. I particularly enjoyed the narrations by KC and Everly because their stories developed an understanding of the class structure of both the American expat community and their isolated and entitled relationship to the wider Cuban society. The children see and tell and show, but do not yet have the vocabulary or awareness to interpret. Through their eyes, the reader sees the revolution coming long before it does or the expats realize what is happening.
Some of the best written scenes in the book were at boozy 1950s cocktail parties among the wealthy American expats a their private clubs. The sometimes acerbic dialogue between the women, marital tensions spilling over drunkenly in public, and a ‘mysterious’ Cuban host that none of the Americans take seriously (save one) were well drawn. In particular, the dialogue and inner reflections of some of the women like Mrs. Covington and Mrs. Mackay were insightful in how both miserably catty and tenderly insecure women can be to each other and themselves. With hot tropical nights, descriptions of 50s fashions, Xavier Cugat, cocktails, adultery–I felt as entertained and guilty as I did when I read about the romantic Southern garden parties and balls in Gone with the Wind.
The second half of the novel slowed a bit. Kushner had fun foreshadowing and giving context to the revolution, but its actual unfolding and result were less successful. I didn’t understand the French revolutionary’s obsession with the cabaret dancer and his role in the revolution. Perhaps he and the dancer were merely vehicles to introduce us to the dictators, Pico and Batista, or to take us up into the guerrilla camps and introduce us to Raul and Fidel and their ragtag–but ultimately effective–shenanigans. But their intertwined stories felt empty once the revolution had completed its arc.
Still, the novel so impressed me that I immediately started reading Rachel Kushner’s latest book, The Flamethrowers, which, after a couple of chapters, promises to be just as good if not better.