Telex from Cuba: A Novel

by Rachel Kushner

Paperback, 2009

Call number




Scribner (2009), Edition: Reprint, 336 pages


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 Ral Castro.

Library's review

Reading her first book last was interesting (I started with The Flame Throwers, then read The Mars Room, and finally Telex from Cuba). There's a progression, or development, from Telex to Flame Throwers to Mars Room. All of them have an historical-fiction sense (well, recent history) that gets less and less central from her first to her third book, but maintains a reportage--a connection with social issues--element while keeping the fictional characters central. Telex from Cuba is the most historical in some ways, with the story of the Cuban Revolution a constant in the background, like she does with the Red Brigades in The Flame Throwers (although there, the political history is even more backgrounded and only one of the subplots). In all three novels there are strong, rebellious women characters who wind up teaching us something important about the social and political undercurrents that form the historical background. The Rachel K character in Telex is perhaps not as clearly defined in this way (in comparison with the central character in The Mars Room), but the lack of definition is part of the mystery that intersects with the Cuban Revolution such that we can imagine different possible futures for her. The other intriguing aspect of Telex is how it manages to tell the story of the Revolution without really taking sides; its nonjudgmental perspective makes it possible to get closer to what it may have been like to experience that period, especially from an ex-pat, outsider's point of view. (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member BeckyJG
Cuba in the fifties was a paradise for American expats. For employees of the United Fruit Company and the Nicaro Nickel Company--for the American employees, anyway--there were servants (carefully trained to cook good American food), parties, and private schools. For Cubans, and for the Haitians and Dominicans brought in as laborers, there was a life of servitude to people who couldn't even be bothered to taste the local cuisine, let alone learn the language.

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.
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LibraryThing member dianaleez
Rachel Kushner's `Telex from Cuba' is a clear and sharp snapshot of a long-lost time and place. Set in 1950's pre-revolutionary Cuba, the novel portrays the island and its people as a complex, multi-layered world.
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?
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LibraryThing member bachaney
Rachel Kushner's "Telex From Cuba" is an excellent first novel, probably the best one I have read this year. The novel creates a vivid view of pre-Castro Cuba--a country full of life, color, and dark secrets.

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.
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LibraryThing member ForeignCircus
Covering the years around the revolution in Cuba filtered mostly through the eyes of children, Telex from Cuba tells the story of the American community living in Cuba managing the United Fruit sugarcane factory and the U.S. government-owned nickel mine.

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.
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
Telex from Cuba is a fictional portrait of 1950s, pre-Castro Cuba. The point of view constantly shifts among a large cast of characters, many of whom are Americans living in Cuba and working for American companies engaged in the explotation of Cuba's abundant natural and human resources.

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.
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LibraryThing member mhleigh
On the eve of revolution in Cuba, many Americans live in the country working for various American companies who exploit the population and resources to export goods (such as sugar) back to the United States. In this novel a variety of characters – men, women, young, old – tell their story of what happened in 1958.

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.
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LibraryThing member alpin
An evocative debut novel about the lost world that was Cuba in the 1950s. The primary perspective is that of two American adolescents whose fathers are executives of the corporations that exploit Cuba's resources and workers and whose observations of their privileged, class-conscious world reveal more than they understand. Absorbing but less successful are the sections that read like a spy thriller, with an exotic dancer, an arms dealer and a shady operator playing both sides in the run-up to the revolution. Lush, detailed description captures the landscape and the multiple layers of a world about to end.… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
"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...She pictured daisy chains of seaweed stretching across the water toward a distant horizon." -Page 1

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.
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LibraryThing member Coyote99
Advance Reader Copy
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member celerydog
Characterisations were variable, I couldn't get KC at all , his voice was a girl's to me - confusing! Lots of colour as metaphor, which felt like homage (to Fitzgerald?). Clearly a first novel with glimpses of future brilliance popping through. Didn't generate enough discussion at book club.
LibraryThing member agnesmack
I’ve been obsessed with the history and politics of Cuba for 7 years now and will read any and all things I can get my hands on, if they pertain to Cuba. Telex From Cuba is a novel written by Rachel Kushner that tells the story of numerous families affected by Fidel Castro’s revolution, the 26th of July Movement.

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.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
This novel is set in Cuba before Castro's revolution. It focuses mainly on the lives of Americans who are exploiting the Cubans through the sugar, nickel and fruit industries. On the positive side, this book reminded me how cut off we are from Cuba and how we really do not learn anything about this country, even though we played a very big part in its history. Although the book is fiction, many real people are minor characters in this story including Castro, Bautista, Prijo as well as Hemingway and American politicians of the time. The writing is descriptive and there were many vignettes that I enjoyed. I found the book lacked an overall plot though. I think I would have liked it better if I read it with the mindset of just getting an overall feel to what life in Cuba was like at the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member ChazzW
There are many, many characters in Rachel Kushner's novel about life in Cuba leading up to the Castro revolution. Which was my great problem with this, her first novel. Doesn't an author owe it to her reader to drop some clue about who we are 'listening' to as we start a new section? Apparently not. Frustrating. And never allowed me to really take an interest in her characters.

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.
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LibraryThing member DougJ110
Castro's Cuban revolution forces these clueless, misfit American characters to behave in fascinating ways. The descriptions of 1950's Cuba are enthralling. Well written and well presented. I enjoyed every minute of reading this book.
LibraryThing member tercat
This book starts strong. At times it lost me a little, but it always pulled me back, and the last perhaps 50 pages are particularly good. There are some common threads between this book and Kushner's follow-up, The Flamethrowers (which I LOVE): revolt, sons of the powerful joining a revolt against their own, characters named Giddle and Valerio. There's something about women and disappointing affairs in there, too. For as much as I've pored over The Flamethrowers, it may well be worth it for me to read Telex from Cuba again to draw out more of the significance of those connections, and also to reinforce Telex's themes. Kushner is a good writer, and even in the parts where she lost me a little, I felt compelled to keep going for her words and for the upshot that I knew was coming, and knew would be worth it, and (while not mind-blowing) it was.… (more)
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
Telex From Cuba is the 2008 debut novel of Rachel Kushner and tells the story of a group of Anglo-expats living in Cuba during the 1950’s revolution. The story is loosely based on the author’s mother’s experiences of growing up in Cuba.

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.
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LibraryThing member ansate
I need my historical fiction to be way more clear on which bits are fiction. I am too gullible
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
This debut novel presented a bit of a conundrum for me. Set in Cuba during the Prio, then Batista regimes, right up to the revolution led by the Castros, the novel chronicles the politics, the corruption, the class struggle and racism of the era in which the Americans and their sugar plantation culture dominated the island. Through the reminiscences of a man who was present throughout as a child, the reader becomes acquainted with the inequities, and one might say, the repetitive absurdity of the era. Overall, the topic, the era, and the story were engrossing. The primary problem in this novel for me was the use of non-chronological format. I do not mind the format in some novels, but in this one I found it to be a significant distraction. I would like to read more by this author to see if her style solidifies.… (more)
LibraryThing member CindaMac
I enjoyed this book - especially the history. I grew up as an expat myself.
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
2.5 stars

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member richardderus
Pearl Rule 12 (p8)

Daddy swore out loud and rushed to the garage where Hilton kept the company limousine, a shiny black Buick. We had two of them—Dynaflows, with the chromed, oval-shaped ventiports along the front fenders.
Dynaflow is a brand of transmission that Buick developed. The car itself was a Buick Roadmaster. If you don't get details such as this right, I lose my sense that you're getting things important to the story, things invisible to me, correct; that means I get the sense that your novel's world is built on misunderstandings and faulty assumptions.

Fiction is made up. It's not history. A detail, a grace note like a thirteen-year-old boy telling the reader that his dad was getting out the Buick, is the world-building that deepens the experience of reading a novel. Unlike speculative fiction, authors can not wave their hands and say "it's my world, so that's how it is." This is January 1958, in Preston (now Guatemala), Cuba; a real place, in a time many now alive remember. Take care to research details or please don't deploy them. Getting something that your point-of-view character is absolutely sure to know *cold*—he's being set up as a bog-standard teen boy and, in 1958 in the US imperial zone, that meant he knew about cars or was...funny—wrong is a signal to my overbooked eyes that this isn't the read for me.
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LibraryThing member LindaWeeks
Really couldn't get into this book at all. It was confusing and frankly quite ho hum.
LibraryThing member Dabble58
Picked up this book from the library to get some atmosphere for a book I am writing that involves Cuba.
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...
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
I wanted to read this one after enjoying The Flamethrowers last year. This one is very different - an impressively detailed recreation of life in Cuba in the 1950s as the revolution was brewing.

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.… (more)




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