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Telex from Cuba: A Novel

A book by Rachel Kushner

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Second hand American dreams

  • Sep 12, 2008
  • by
Rating:
+5
Cuba as a place frozen in time:

Cuba in the 1950s before the revolution a sepia-tinted postcard of a place so pristine that it never could have existed.

Cuba today a black and white ruin so ancient that it never could have existed.

But Cuba, as a place frozen in time, holds such a place in our memories that if it never could have existed, we would have to invent it.

I've never been closer to Cuba than Sarasota, but Kushner's fiction documents that fictional memory as if it were my own. As a first novel, it has a maturity and wisdom many writers never grasp no matter their reach. Writing about Cuba in the 1950s at the last gasp of American imperialistic control of Cuba's natural resources, Kushner switches between first- and third-person accounts of the executives managing the United Fruit plantation and nickel mine, and (most insightfully) their wives and children. She also cuts in an account of a mercenary French gunrunner and his mistress, a burlesque dancer he shares with soon-to-be-deposed President Batista, revolutionary Raul Castro--and one of the American executives! This story line, while it drives much of the historical action of the story, is not as atmospheric and calmly beautiful as the stories of the American expats.

Kushner's tale, in its lyricism and spare description and insight into the naive joys on the surface and the occasional desperation just beneath the surface. reads like the back story to Jimmy Buffett's "Banana Republics":

Down to the Banana Republics
Down to the tropical sun
Go the expatriated American
Hopin' to find some fun

Some of them go for the sailing
Brought by the lure of the sea
Tryin' to find what is ailing
Living in the land of the free
Some of them are running to lovers
Leaving no forward address
Some of them are running tons of ganja
Some are running from the IRS

Late at night you will find them
In the cheap hotels and bars
Hustling the senioritas
While they dance beneath the stars
Spending those renegade pesos
on a bottle of rum and a lime
Singin' give me some words I can dance to
Or a melody that rhymes

First you learn the native custom
Soon a word of Spanish or two
You know that you cannot trust them
Cause they know they can't trust you

...

Down to the Banana Republics
Things aren't as warm as they seem
None of the natives are buying
any second hand American dreams

....

In the end, none of the natives in 1958 Cuba were buying any second hand American dreams, a fact that seemed so innocence-shattering to Kushner's characters then and so assumed in our post-modern days.

But if we take a closer look at that black and white ruin we see today, seemingly so ancient that it never could have existed, we see that remains of second-hand American dreams are all that remains of 1958 Cuba. Hemingway's remains belong to Cuba, both in literature (as a bar patron in Havana here) and literal fact: Hemingway in Cuba tells more of the story in a book beautifully-illustrated with pictures of those black and white ruins.

Or, as Kushner says, through the modern reminiscences of one of the now middle-aged expatriated American children:

You don't call the dead.
The dead call you.

Telex from Cuba is a rare modern classic.

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More Telex from Cuba: A Novel reviews
review by . February 04, 2009
Kushner writes of America's glory days in pre-revolutionary Cuba, from 1952 until 1958, when dreams of continued affluence dissolve in the face of the Castro's populist rebellion. Two children describe the luxurious conditions of their childhood: KC Stites, whose father heads the United Fruit Company, an enormous sugar cane enterprise of 300,000 acres and the wealthy enclave of Oriente Province; Everly Lederer's family cannot claim such rich benefits, but still, her father, who works in management …
review by . January 14, 2009
Kushner is a writer with great talent. She recreates the Cuba of the 1950's in a way that seems real and immediate. The reader can learn a good deal about the history of Cuba in an entertaining and enjoyable way through this novel. The narrative creates a tension which lures the reader to the next page, even though there are few sympathetic characters herein. The author's moralizing tone is the only negative feature of this otherwise laudable novel.    Most of the adults are …
review by . January 02, 2009
Telex from Cuba is an ambitious novel. Its problem is a near terminal case of P.O.V. - itis. The story covers a few years prior to the January 1959 entrance of the barbudos into Havana, told from the point of view of two American ex-patriot children, and it's near impossible to distinguish one child from the other; a romantic French ex-pat who is a gun-runner, revolutionary theoretician, and rake; and an omniscient narrator. Except for the Frenchman, the narrators melt together, and it takes paragraphs …
review by . January 01, 2009
My trip to Cuba this past spring was an illuminating and educational experience as well as an eye-opener to the social and political systems of this Caribbean country. There is so much negative attitude about Cuba in the media that to see the country up front and personal is an entirely different experience than listening to all the one-dimensional hype. Reading Telex from Cuba, by first-time author Rachel Kushner was another piece of the puzzle that integrates the power, corruption and romanticism, …
review by . December 16, 2008
In an impressive first novel, Rachel Kushner writes about the lives of American families in Cuba before Castro, and the events leading up to the revolution. There are American families, like the Stites and the Lederers, making their fortunes in Cuba, and putting on the perfect facades despite their problems. There are the Allens, wanted fugitives in America, for whom Cuba is the last resort. Then there are characters like Rachel K., a cabaret dancer who helps out the rebels and facilitates political …
review by . August 27, 2008
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 …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #38
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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Wiki

Rachel Kushner's first novel,Telex from Cuba, doesn't read like your usual debut. Using family stories, extensive archival research, and all the tools of the novelist's imagination, she creates a portrait in many voices of a small society at a crucial moment in time: the American sugar cane and nickel-mining colony in the last years before Castro and the first moments of his revolution. As seen through the lives of the children and wives of American executives, and the parallel intrigues of a nightclub dancer with powerful friends and a former French collaborator--along with striking cameos by historical figures like the Castro brothers, Hemingway, and, yes, Colonel Sanders--Kushner's Cuba makes the raw materials of revolution, and its aftermath, come alive.

Questions for Rachel Kushner

Amazon.com: You're writing about the end of one era for Cuba at what may be the end of another. Was that in your mind as you wrote?

Kushner: It wasn't so much, actually, but that might be because I wrote the bulk of the book before Fidel fell ill with diverticulitis, and before the American media's obsession with his (like all of ours) eventual death hit a pitch point. Even now, I find this sense of waiting and the media's focus on it to be an odd tautology: the "breaking" story is often that there's a breaking story, but then the story never comes. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Fidel Castro's policies, his segue out of public view has been pretty brilliant. He trumped the media's ...

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Details

ISBN-10: 141656103X
ISBN-13: 978-1416561033
Author: Rachel Kushner
Publisher: Scribner

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