Sunday, March 2, 2014

Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

A fragile world of clueless American expats is swept into the dustbin of history

For decades in the Oriente, the remotest part of Cuba, American managers have overseen the United Fruit Company sugarcane fields and by extension, the government of Cuba. The United Fruit Company prefers a stable situation to an unstable one and has few scruples about how the corrupt Cuban government maintains the profitable peace.  The head of the company, Mr. Stites, however, a likable well read chap, is sanguine about the educated guerillas in the mountains. He feels he can work with them.  At first.  This novel follows the fortunes of a few of the expats as they experience Castro’s revolution and the destruction of their comfortable bubble. We meet Everly Lederer, fascinated by the book Treasure Island, the young daughter of an engineer recently posted to the nickel mine. Mr. Stities’s teenage son KC, narrates a significant portion of the book. KC’s section also explains the mechanics of sugar production and the dynamics of the revolution (of which many Americans were initially supportive.) There is also a host of minor characters, including cold blooded French guerillas and drunken American wives. They drink a lot, the expats. They like to party.  Rachel K, Mr. Stites mysterious mistress in Havana and the mistress of more than one president, plays a key role in the revolution. Apparently she was a real historical figure, and not a stand in for the author.

The story opens with a bang, as the guerillas set the highly flammable cane fields afire. That act sets the threatening tone, and also lets KC Stites to explain everything about sugarcane processing and the roots of the revolution. In the beginning, the prose seems slightly constipated, careful, like in a first novel maybe. What is impressive is the scope and sweep, the ambition of the scenes, the use of Hemingway and Fidel as characters.

I read this because I loved The Flamethrowers.  This novel didn’t enthrall me the way that one did, although the scope was equally ambitious. I think the problem here was too many samey characters, dissipating the story’s momentum. Also, the narrative consciousness was scattered unlike the other book which maintained an intensity partially because of the first person narration.

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