In Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre, we learned a bit about the American takeover of Cuba under the pretext of saving its citizens from Spanish depredations (Sounds a little to me like the Russians saving the Ukrainians, but I guess that’s another matter.) In Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba, we get a good look at the results of fifty-plus years of domination by United Fruit Company and other big American businesses.
The companies have built ersatz American suburbs in the environs of the cane fields and nickel mines and other exploitative operations. In these little towns, the company families try to live pretty much the way their American counterparts do, albeit with a host of servants and gardeners and other amenities afforded them by living among a poverty-stricken populace. I often felt that I was in the midst of Mad Men or the pages of one of those expose novels like Peyton Place, with all the drinking and wife swapping behind a facade of respectable morality. A sad and fake place.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island and around the world, people are plotting to toss the monopolies out. One dictator (Prio) has been ousted, the more famous Batista has taken over. The caribbean is rife with this sort of thing right now, with both the Dominican Republic and Haiti having undergone similar upheavals. We follow a French gentleman of fortune, who served the Nazi’s in WWII, then is now playing the rebels in the hills against Batista as he trades arms and ammunition with both and attempts to simply end up on the winning side with a profit. He’s in love with a whore who’s doing the same thing, unbeknownst, of course.
Then, we have Fidel and Raul and their minions running around the hills, setting fire to cane fields, wooing the workers.
It’s an exciting tale, full of history, and very educational as well as entertaining. Problem for me is that despite a lot of good writing:
She’d had a dream abut a woman who walked through a room wearing nothing, just a towel held up to her front. What a lovely way to assert yourself was her dream sentiment, watching the woman stride through the room, her backside bare.
Or speaking of mounted animal heads:
It was moribund ornamentation … but also funny. As if the animals were standing behind plywood sets at the fair, putting their heads through circular holes.
And an exquisite scene–as good as any I’ve read–about a man returning him after being held prisoner by the rebels, standing in his back yard watching and listening to his wife and family. Too long to quote hear, but top-notch.
Problem is, though, that Kushner gives us just too many characters. We don’t really know, on a feeling level, whose book this is. We skip from one to another like a stone splashing across a pool, seldom staying in one place long enough to settle down and get acquainted. Not that every character isn’t nicely drawn and interesting. There’s just no one to whom to give our heart and hate.
There’s a prologue and epilogue that preface and continue the story well beyond its natural boundaries. They provide little color and a great deal more superfluous detail.
I suppose, once again, I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I wish someone had played Maxwell Perkins with her and just blue penciled about twenty-five per cent of Telex.