This is Kushner’s first book which I decided to read after falling in love with her second, The Flamethrowers (2013). To an extent we have the same themes in play – identity and class for instance, but here race is significant. They both deal with revolution and revolutionaries. Also, they are historical fiction in a sense although The Flamethrowers is set mostly in the 1970s.
Telex From Cuba takes place in a place called Preston, Cuba (very near Holguin toward the southern end) during the late 1950s – the United Fruit Company has been harvesting the sugar cane for all it’s worth supporting whomever is in power by whatever means to keep that money flowing in. But by 1958 United Fruit has run into considerable opposition – Fidel and Raul are organizing; Batista is back and taking the side of more money; and the fields of the Company are being deliberately set ablaze. Should note that although the story takes place in this setting, it’s being told, at least Kim’s part, from 2012-13 or so.
The story centers around several American ex-pat families of very different socio-economic classes. Kim Stites, age 9 and up is often the first person narrator.
In 1958, when the narrative begins, Kim has just turned 13 years old. He is the younger of two sons of Malcolm Stites, a Mississippi-born top executive of United Fruit with connections to Joe Kennedy, Ambassador Smith, John Dulles and many other highly placed individuals (real and fictional). Malcolm’s main job for awhile now has been negotiating between the Castros and Batista and the US government. Mr. Stites is struggling to keep his way of life going with the servants, the private train cars, the clubs, the homes, proper English grammar and manners. Although Stites is more liberal than many plantation executives, his eldest son, Del, has gone to fight with the revolutionaries and now the fields are on fire while Kim stays home with mom and the maids – and lower class friends. Kim’s sections are told in first person.
Everly is about the same age as Kim and one of three daughters of George Lederer. Her story is told in 3rd person from when she is 8 years old and her family moves to Cuba. The Lederers are a somewhat strange middle class family from Oak Ridge, Tennessee where her father had been employed with the Manhattan Project – atomic bomb development. In 1952 the Americans were re-opening the Cuban nickel processing plant in Nicaro – near Preston and many Americans arrive in the area. Like the others, the Lederers are looking to struggle up the socio-economic ladder via Cuba. Everly is a tomboy-type, very smart and curious – tends to liken her life to that of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island and likes being called Tex. Her sister gets a “Scribbles doll” – these were the kind you drew the faces on – again in keeping with the theme of identity.
Curtis is the 12 year old son of Rudy and Hatch Allain are Cajun foremen who have brought their whole families including many children. They have too many dirty mouths to feed and can’t afford to care about much except keeping their jobs. They are not terribly concerned with what the neighbors think. Hatch may be a convicted murderer in Louisiana but he’s “good with the Negros.” Kim (K.C.) tells the story of Curtis and his family.
The cane-cutters are Jamaican but had been Haitian. Their overseers were Cuban. The managers were Cajun, the business folks were middle-class from the US, and the executives were upper class WASP. And “Oriente was the largest, poorest, blackest province.” (p. 14)
There are other characters of course, Mr. Bloussé, a blonde French contractor who brings the Haitians to work but surprisingly has a black wife and 3 black daughters.
And there’s Rachel K who, in 1952, is a dancer at the Tokio Cabaret in Havana. She is or has been the lover of President Prio, General Batista and Mr. Stites. Rachel K is Cuban and some unknown ancestry – she’s probably part French. She pretends she’s French – told in 3rd person. Kushner has said she is an historical person.
She believed that people are born every minute of their lives, and what they are in each of those minutes is what they are completely. (p. 38)
Then comes D.L. Maziere a German ex-Nazi turned ammunitions dealer who passes for French. (Kushner seems to have used Christian De La Maziere of France to play this character.)
The structure is limited linear – it starts off in 1958 then falshes back to 1952 and proceedes until it gets to 1958 again – so we know the backstory behind the action in 1958, and continues.
Kushner really did quite a lot of historical research and it’s in the details so you have to pay attention.
“Her grandfather came over from Europe at the turn of the century, worked on a plantation for someone called Dumois.” (p. 33)
You’re not going to find the Dumois Plantation mentioned at Wikipedia but it is mentioned on page 479 of the Bulletin of the Pan American Union – United States Congressional serial set, Issue 6305. See Google Books. Kushner is careful not to show off her research but rather to let the story carry itself knowing the underpinnings are all in order. (Although Castro may or may not have visited Rachel K.)
And the metaphors work -not many but somehow frequently related to the idea of identity via photographs and mirrors or a performance – people pose to document a present which is already past, curtains open and characters peek out, or they imagine they do. Rachel K. is painted “like a doll.”
The themes circle around social class (money, position, race and other factors), identity (real or imagined), and performance. Rachel is the performance queen of course, and in her audience is a Frenchman who also “acts” his part. Power is important – who has it, why and what they do with it – how it changes. Mirrors and reflections come up a couple times. And this:
Documenting life as it happened seemed like a way of not experiencing it. As if posing for photographs, or focusing on what to save and call a souvenir, made the present instantly the past. (p. 43)
… Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was televised. “Live,” her mother kept saying, which Everly found confusing. Wasn’t everything live? Or did it mean seeing in present time something that was evidence the present had taken place, like the photos and souvenirs that Stevie collected to put in her scrapbook? Maybe it meant you could experience something and see it as a memory at one and the same time. (p. 136)
Curtis Allain and Kim Stites are best friends even though Curtis is the son of a convicted murderer and Kim the son of an United executive. It’s easy for the kids – the parents have seriously mixed or racist attitudes.
But whether or not you actually committed a crime, moving to another country meant getting away from all the people who had decided what kind of person you were and how you were supposed to live your life. (p. 88).
In 1952 Kim ponders the new arrivals which include Americans for the Nicaro plant – the American nickel production. These include Everly and her family.
In Part 2 the first focus is on the adults in various Nicaro plant families – they drink a lot, the women complain about prices and servants, the men conduct business – in their own way, they all gossip and generally hate their lives in Cuba. In other words they all act more or less like ex-pats in many colonial type places. I’m reminded of a 1950s version The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell in the post-colonial atmosphere and the status conscious characters. Also A Passage to India by E. M. Forster or several other books about the Raj in India.
Racism is pervasive and systemic from the Yacht Club crowd, on top of the whole heap, through the Cubans (no matter how highly placed), and the poor white trash who are still above the Jamaican servants and Haitian blacks. Of course there are secrets – Mr. Carrington turns out to be Cuban – how’s that for identity?
Meanwhile, D.L. Maziere sees Fidel Castro and a teenage man visit Rachel K. Castro had been plotting against Batista and wanted to get ahold of Prio. Most of what Kushner uses about Castro is true but she seems neither sympathetic nor opposed. He is in jail and just starting to organize for violent protests about this time. It’s possible that Maziere can help get the weapons for Castro if Prio will fund them. Maziere can see the possibilities.
Nicaro is a very dirty place to live, the smoke is inescapable and unremitting but they make do. Willy is the Lederer’s Haitian house man – he’s very smart and Everly takes to following him around. He reads and fixes things, doesn’t drink and saves his money. He was raised by Mr. Bloussé, the blonde Frenchman and has been taught French, English, reading, writing and other things. Interesting character for a book with the theme of identity.
Rachel K becomes very involved with Castro, Maziere and Prio – enjoying it – a bad end is predicted by Maziere.
Part 3: And now it’s December 1957 with the Christmas holidays as celebrated in colonial Cuba. Del doesn’t show up to leave for the holidays but the tension here is when and how will Del actually made the break for the revolution. The fact of his absence was mentioned in Part 1, January 1958, the frame story when the fields were burning. At the dining room table just the month prior Del says,
“Don’t you think it’s funny that we teach them agriculture, and none of them own any land?” (p. 169).
and Dad blows up at him telling him he’s nothing but a “spoiled goddamn brat.” And that’s the end of Del.
Now it’s boring – The family spends Christmas at the Floridita in Havana. Lots of famous people and places around Cuba are mentioned, Ernest Hemingway, others – how rich and fancy the Stites family is, I suppose. It’s about social class and money and the denial of what’s happening by those in power:
That anything unseemly could be made tolerable if you told yourself it was a special thing, an exclusive thing. Like caviar, he said. I told him I hated caviar, and Daddy said it wasn’t about taste, it was about having things that other people couldn’t have, and there was a certain burden in that. (p. 170)
And going along with that theme, it’s about identity and performance so the characters play their parts. Xavier Cugat is on stage, (see YouTube), Hemingway is drunk and a loud-mouth ass. The party continues at a private home with Batista showing up and more “performances” and photo ops.
We already know the ending – the Americans are evicted, Fidel Castro becomes El Presidente, United Fruit is nationalized. – But the book details what happens to these characters on the way.
The book bogged down for me from about 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the way through. Then it picked up again and at the end I found I’d really come to care about these characters far more than I thought I did.
From an article about Cuba by Kushner in the NY Times 2008
“[United Fruit] Company holdings in Cuba, which included sugar mills in the Oriente region of the island, were expropriated by the 1959 revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. By April 1960 Castro was accusing the company of aiding Cuban exiles and supporters of former leader Fulgencio Batista in initiating a seaborn invasion of Cuba directed from the United States. Castro warned the U.S. that “Cuba is not another Guatemala” in one of many combative diplomatic exchanges before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.”
NY Times 2008