Coming of age in mid-1950s Cuba where the local sugar and nickel production are controlled by American interests, Everly Lederer and KC Stites observe the indulgences and betrayals of the adult world and are swept up by the revolt led by Fidel and Raâul Castro.
Telex from Cuba is set in the years between 1952 and 1958, when all the Americans were evacuated in the aftermath of the revolution. Although it is a savvy and realistic story, due to Kushner's plumbing of family correspondence and memories, as well as solid historical research, it is not a grim one. We meet presidents and dictators, revolutionaries and show girls and speculators. But mostly, we become involved in the lives of the Americans who inhabit Preston and Nicaro, company towns of the United Fruit Company and Nicaro Nickel Company respectively.
The story consists of two narrative threads. The first is told by KC Stites, younger son of a United Fruit Company executive, who has spent his whole life in Cuba. The second is a third person narrative which, although it moves among the perspectives of various Americans, adult and child, in Nicaro, comes to us most vividly from that of Everly Lederer, who has just arrived with her family at the beginning of the novel. Both points of view are fresh and distinct, and all of the characters are complex and real.
Although this novel could not be called magical realism, still, there's something about the tropics, the sheer sensory, sensual overload of them, that feels magical, even when all of the events are strictly earthbound. Fragrance, color, heat, humidity, the brilliant sun, the sudden drenching rain, bananas and guavas and mangoes and limes and pineapples, sweat--and everybody sweats a lot, rotting vegetation, the sugar cane and nickel refineries--how can there be so much to see taste smell touch in such a small place?
Rachel Kushner's writing is gorgeous, simple and rich, and--mostly--just right for the period in which it's set. There are one or two jarring anachronisms of phrase, such as when the narrator says that a daughter has "outed" her father as a Cuban, but these are minor when placed in the context of the whole.
Telex From Cuba is a novel which has the potential to be a creeping bestseller, one that, perhaps, doesn't hit with a bang, but which word of mouth--and book groups, wonderful book groups!--keeps moving along.
Americans may, on first glance, relate to their compatriots working for the United Fruit Company - strangers in a strange land, they live comfortable lives much better than they would `at home in the States,' and it is only when the reader is guided below the surface that he sees that their emphasis on class and property and their lack of moral focus mirrors that of the island.
Our guides and the chief observers of American/Cuban life are two American children - KC Stites, who is narrating from the vantage of old age, and Everly Lederer, an uneasy, intelligent girl. And in the tradition of child protagonists, each reveals much more than they understand. But despite their limited understanding, the adult reader soon has a firm grasp of the moral depravity and social problems of the American community and Cuban life.
Perhaps the weakest part of the novel is the foray into Havana, where the tone becomes more that of a spy novel; the pacing and mood change, but the message remains the same - each encounter, each interaction between characters mirrors the connection between classes and individuals. Cuba is changing and it is time that it did. But the question remains, will life on the island be any different for the people who live there?
Despite the description on the book flap, "Telex" is really an ensemble tale, covering the six years before Castro's Revolution in Cuba through the eyes of a group of Americans that are in Cuba working for American companies. The novel's storytellers are mostly women and children, whose collective naivety of the strings holding up their comfortable lives in a tropical paradise brings an interesting perspective to the story. As the story progresses all of the characters become more aware of the oppressive conditions that make their lives possible, and of the rebel cause that exists beyond their picturesque doorstep.
Although the novel jumps around a lot between characters and their distinctive narrative voices, it does not feel choppy. Kushner does an excellent job of timing the increasing awareness of her characters along with the progression of the rebellion so that both crescendo at the same time, creating an excellent pace and intensity in the novel. Even though as the reader you know how the revolution and the story will ultimately end, Kushner's narrative style keeps you engaged throughout.
I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a compelling read, or anyone with an interest in Castro's Revolution or Cuban history. The book certainly made me more interested in several of its central subjects--the United Fruit Company, Castro's Revolution, US Government involvement in Cuba--and gave me a new perspective on the consequences of Cold War politics and American Imperialism.
This book was mesmerizing- beautifully written and truly evocative of the time and place of the story. Kushner paints an indelible picture of life in the United Fruit company's outpost in Cuba, her words creating a vivid portrait of a way of life in collapse. The characters, including Cuba itself, are wonderfully drawn- true to type in many ways but just eccentric enough to stay interesting as different layers of their lives and personalities are revealed.
Knowing that Kushner's mother lived through this tumultuous time in Cuba lends even greater reality to the narrative. I picked this book up and could barely stand to put it down. The book highlights the inequalities that helped lead to the revolution, and the sadness of people on both sides when it didn't all work out as planned. I highly recommend this book.
Kushner's lush, detailed descriptions of the Cuban landscape--natural, political, and social--reveal her deep knowledge of this particular place and time. This well-researched and lovingly depicted setting is this book's real strength. Kushner captures the spirit of pre-revolutionary Cuba perhaps better than any other novel ever has.
Unfortunately, the other aspects of this novel--including the characterization and plot development--suffer in comparison. Telex from Cuba is more of a fictionalized history than a fully developed novel. The characters are fairly generic types that remain static and underdeveloped. The plot revolving around the primary characters is fairly directionless to start with but is made even more so by a distracting subplot about a weapons dealer and a high-class prostitute that never blends into the overall narrative structure of the book. Telex from Cuba transports readers to an exotic locale but fails to deliver an interesting story once there.
Quote: “’Did you know Batista force-feeds people castor oil?’ Del asked once of no one in particular. ‘Isn’t that nice, Mother? Maybe we can ask him about it next time he comes for dinner.’”
This book has been reviewed very highly many places, so perhaps I went into it with expectations that were too high. I could not get into this novel and it took me forever to finish it. My main complaint was that the number of characters was staggering – and they weren’t just mentioned, they all had leading parts in various parts of the story. New chapter, new character’s point of view, possibly new time period. I would have been much happier with a list of characters in the front of the book so I could keep track of who was married to who and whose child is this coming on the scene. Or just pick a few characters and develop them well instead of hoping around incessantly.
Good first novel story of corporate America's involvement and disregard for the resources and natives in Cuba as Castro commands his rebel forces in the mountains. Told from the perspective of 2 children of families working for American corporations, my only reservation is that I never really liked any of the characters. The portrayal of how little regard the expatriates had for the land they were pillaging was very well done.
Eight year old Everly Lederer is on her way to Cuba from the U.S. in 1952 because her father has taken a new executive position with the United Fruit Company. Her life in the sheltered white American community is one of privilege and yet she feels a special connection with their Haitian houseboy. K.C. Stites is a nine year old boy who's father is an executive with the United Fruit Company. He develops a fondness for Everly over the ensuing six years that she can't return. These two characters are brought to life by Rachel Kushner in her story of the years leading up to Castro's 1958 revolution and the time when the Americans were forced out of Cuba.
At the other end of the island, in Havana, Christian de La Maziere, a Frenchman who is haunted by the fact that he abandoned his countrymen to fight with the Germans in WWII, and Rachel K, a Cuban cabaret dancer, are involved separately with the political upheaval of the time.
Kushner cleverly weaves their four stories through time and location and paints a fascinating portrait of life in Cuba at a time that was dangerous and would, eventually, have an impact on tens of thousands of lives for years to come. Her description of life in the jungle with the rebels demonstrated her explicit research while the story of Batista's strafing of the American enclave was riveting.
Through the development of these characters we learn that children can sometimes be the adults, that racism knows no bounds, that privilege comes with costs, that ideals are difficult to maintain, and that what you're fighting for is not always what you get.
I especially liked the way the last few chapters were set in 1999 where K.C. looked back at that time and Everly actually went back to see what had changed in Cuba. It's hard to believe that this is Kushner's first published novel; it's that good and a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. Highly recommended.
We have plant managers of United Fruit, an American sugar producing company that had a huge presence in Cuba until the late ’50s. We have the children of said managers, some of whom are sympathetic to the interests of American companies in Cuba, some of whom sympathize with the Cuban people, and one of whom even joins the rebels in the Sierra Maestro to fight for the overthrow of Batista. We have the stories of the Cuban people, some of whom are poor every-day-Joes, some of whom are politicos making back-door deals with the American government.
On the plus side, of all the novels I’ve read about Cuba, and specifically Castro’s Revolution, this is probably the best at showing all sides. Typically, they are either pro-Castro or anti-Castro and don’t bother to explain the complexities of the situation. In this instance, I think readers were treated to a pretty fair analysis of how the Cuban people were being taken advantage of by the interest of American countries, and how Castro’s Revolution disrupted the lives of many.
So, I’d say that the story was spot on and successful. The writing, on the other hand, left much to be desired for me. There were, I don’t know, at least 2 dozen characters we were supposed to keep track of. Like I said, I liked that so many points of view were represented, but at a point it just became tedious. Some of the characters were there to make the same point as others and I would have preferred a little more focus. As it was, I had a hard time remembering who some of the people were, with which side their sympathies lay and what their backstory was.
If this book had not been about Cuba, I would absolutely not have liked it. However, it was one of the most well-rounded novels I’ve read on the subject.
There were two exceptions. The mysterious La Maziere, a sort of arms-dealer, soldier of fortune who has been around the block a few times. Also the curiously named Rachel K. Although I have no idea why Kushner might have slapped this moniker on her Zazou dancer/show-girl, she also had a distinctive voice, along with La Maziere.
All of the other characters (except the historical ones: Castro, Batista, Trujillo, etc.) are in Cuba as part of the great exploitation by United Fruit. One of these families is the Lederer's. When the Lederer's get a Dumont television, one of the first things they watched was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. This is funny, because the first tv show I can remember watching on our black and white Zenith was this same coronation. June 2, 1953. We lived in Miami. I was 8 years old. And we had just gotten our first tv.
Passages like this one are few and far between as when La Maziere gives this description of Rachel K:
...the nights he'd spent observing the girl and her zazou act, and eventually investigating for himself, only to discover that her odd combination of remoteness and availability went several layers deep. At ties he'd suspected she was only layers, like an onion, and if he peeled them away, to get to some kernel, some essence or truth, he'd end up with just a pile of glossy, eye-stinging skins, an odor on his hands that was difficult to wash away. People said lemons, but the lemons never worked: a hand would smell of onions until it was finished smelling of onions.
Sometimes these descriptions work. Mostly, they don't.
I had the odd serendipitous moment while reading Elegance of the Hedgehog awhile ago. Here, another one. I had just watched a newly released to DVD French noir (Jean Pierre Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle). One of the main characters is named Manouche.
In another passage where La Maziere describes Rachel K...
I forgot that my Miss K is French. Never mind her K name and that lovely Manouche face...
Now, either this is an anachronism (the film is from 1966) or Manouche refers to the gypsy jazz of Django Reonhart...either way...
Witbh a little care, this could have been so much more accomplished of a novel. At any rate, Kushner is a name to watch in the future.
Perhaps it's just me, but I couldn't finish it. I loved the description of the life in Cuba during the Batista years, the feeling of excitement around the coming of Castro (and unease), but the book suffers from a lack of involvement with the characters. Halfway through I didn't feel any interest in any of the characters and was instead confused about who was where and who was who. I'd be hard pressed to remember any of their names. I do remember the descriptions of the shops and arrivals in Havana and the travel back to the United Fruit company town...but everyone is venal and small and self-obsessed and drunk all the time. Depressing even if true. I craved one character with redeeming social value.
Back to the library, unfinished...
I found each character to be multi-layered and interestingly drawn. As the story unfolds we learn the hows and whys of the revolution. Using two large American controlled companies as backdrop we can see how the rich, white Americans were living an idyllic life while the natives were doing the back breaking jobs in the cane fields and mines. These companies controlled all aspects of their workers lives.
Two of the main characters were children at the time and although they don’t necessarily understand what was happening, their words and actions reveal a lot. When the focus turns to the adults, we also get a glimpse of the rotten underbelly that attracted various criminals, arms dealers, whore mongers and bored Americans to this tiny country. This was a place that was ripe for change and the Castro brothers were there to overthrow a corrupt government and the stranglehold of Colonialism.
I enjoyed this story and learned a lot about this island nation and although I am not sure that the people of Cuba benefited greatly from this revolution, I can certainly understand why it happened.
This is set in the 1950s in Cuba. Some American families have moved to Cuba to work for companies on the island. The main character in the story is a boy, K.C. So, the story follows him and his family, as well as a young girl, Everly, and her family (amongst others).
I’m sure my rating (and enjoyment, or lack of) of the book more reflect the fact that I was listening to it on a dying mp3 player, so it was harder to pay attention as the sound came and went at times. Of what I was paying attention to, there were parts I enjoyed more than others: the focus on the families was more interesting to me than the focus on the politics of the revolution.
It tells the stories of an odd mixture of characters, mostly American colonists. The most compelling voices are the children. Inevitably the book is a little uneven, but is well worth reading and an intriguing choice of subject for a first novel.