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Telex from Cuba: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Rachel Kushner
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (218 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Rachel Kushner has written an astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro's revolution -- a place that was a paradise for a time and for a few. The first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out in 1958, this is a masterful debut.

Young Everly Lederer and K. C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom -- three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child's dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them -- the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence.

In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Mazière, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of "yanqui" revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come.

At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex. Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 deathwatch by stepping down, which took away the promise in his death: nothing substantial has changed to date, except the perception that his move away from the role of lider would precipitate change. I do hear he has more time to read now. Someone apparently gave him a copy of Telex from Cuba. I'd like to think he's reading it now, in that tracksuit that replaced the military fatigues.

Amazon.com: The kernel of your story was your mother's childhood, similar to some of those you describe in the book, growing up in Cuba as the daughter of an American mining executive. Did you hear her stories about that time during your own childhood? What did you add to them when you started doing your own research?

Kushner: I indeed heard lots of stories when I was a kid--Cuba has a real mythological importance to my mother and her sisters and how they think of themselves (my mother, for instance, was under the sway of their Jamaican houseboy, Cleveland, who is the inspiration for Willy in my book). My grandparents, dead for many years now, saved an incredible trove of stuff from their life in Cuba: every last receipt from the United Fruit commissary where my grandmother bought groceries, a mimeograph of every letter she sent, etc. I spent about three years going through this stuff, and interviewing my mother and her sisters and others they’d grown up with. But then I had to disconnect completely from all that, and build a fictional structure and then adhere precisely to its logic and requirements, which meant only using what served my story. Just because something is true does not mean it has a place. Often it turned out quite the opposite, that the people and characters and details I imagined were much more fluid and true seeming, and it was the "true life" detail that stuck out and seemed awkward.

That said, by so thoroughly metabolizing the "real" American colony, I was able to depict mine freehand, if you will, in a way that is (hopefully) convincing, that works as fiction but is a realm you can enter and see an erased world. I know that those who grew up in Nicaro have read the book and loved it, so that's nice. And there are many keys and arrows that point to or hint at real people and events, if amalgamations. Some of the American employees, for instance, were kidnapped and later invited to Raul's wedding. There was a Cuban investor who was a kind of interloper and got Batista's air force to strafe Nicaro, in order to drive the Americans out. I spoke on the phone to the former mine manager's wife, who told me that this Cuban investor threatened to kill her husband if he stayed. So that’s a real-life detail. I guess there are many, but they are a bare-bones architecture; how fiction becomes fiction is less linear, more mysterious, and might I say difficult!

Amazon.com: This isn't your usual fiction debut, channeled through the perspective of a single navel. You take on a whole society's worth of voices, often in one scene (I'm thinking in particular of the wonderful party scene at the center of the book). Was that your intention from the beginning, or did you start with one perspective and then find yourself needing more?

Kushner: It's true, not one navel, and not my own, either. Probably that's partly why it took me so long to write it. I somehow always knew it would be a structure of multiple voices, rather than a single protagonist. I had become attached, from early on, to the idea--whether I have achieved it or not--of getting at the complex and varied forces of revolution and what led to it, i.e, how did the Americans participate, how did it constitute them, and the reverse, how did they affect it? There would have been no way to do this without rendering the story from multiple perspectives. Alejo Carpentier does it for the Haitian Revolution in The Kingdom of This World, for instance, with one narrator named Ti Noël, but he has this guy live about 200 years, so he can witness every significant juncture in the epic.

My problem was not a protracted timeframe, but a subtle network of dynamics: the American executives at United Fruit and the Nicaro Nickel Company were dealing with Batista and in denial of the revolution. But the revolution was obviously real, and so I needed to send some people up into the mountains to behold what was happening there. A disaffected narrator like La Mazière--like Rachel K, based on a real life figure of that same name--serves this role. Also, he cuts through a bit of the romance associated with revolutionary change. He's totally jaded and there for all the "wrong" reasons, an adventurer who sees violence as mystical, as a "pure" agent of change, if you will. And Rachel K was useful in that she could reveal some of what was happening in Havana and be close to the big political players in the government as well as the underground.

Lastly, a child who can see it all up close, like Everly, can reveal certain less mediated truths, without the more narrow judgments and strictures of adult thinking. Everly can hold contradiction in her mind and not be forced to resolve it, which is what maturity so often does to the process of thinking. On the other hand, in K.C. I wanted a child narrator who was looking back in hindsight, who has some degree of awareness, but not complete awareness, of how and whether his memories hold up over time: is the world he loves as benevolent as it had seemed to him as a child? Was it benevolent even then? Regardless, it's his childhood as well as a place, and he has a right to have his own feelings about his own childhood, even if the implications of it are so much larger than one boy's life.

Amazon.com: You leave yourself almost entirely out of the story, but there is one provocatively named character who apparently shares very little of your own biography: Rachel K. How did she come into the story, and how did she come to share your name?

Kushner: Actually, Rachel K is a real-life historic figure of pre-Castro Cuba, though specifically of the dictator Machado's era, and not Batista's. While I was researching the book, I came across a reference to her while reading Michael Chanan's comprehensive book about post-revolutionary films, The Cuban Image. Rachel K (no period after K—in every Cuban history reference, she is, as if sprung from a Kafkan universe, referred to this way) was a "French variety dancer" who became an icon after she was found mysteriously murdered in a hotel room. No one ever figured out what happened, and the mystery of her death came to signify the mortal decadence of Havana in the 1930s. The Cubans made a film about her in 1973 called The Strange Case of Rachel K. Because of her role in history, and in historical imagery, and due to the striking coincidence that her name is like mine, I felt it would be an act of exclusion not to put her in the book. I took the "cue" and ran with it, basically. And as you say, yeah, she is unlike me, which makes her perhaps a perverse or fun surrogate: she's discreet and dispassionate, qualities I wish I possessed, but in fact do not. Though perhaps she is my repressed double, "more me than me." On the surface I am much more like Everly: a goofy fabulist.

Amazon.com: You've visited Cuba a lot in recent years. What memories are there of the pre-Castro times and of the American presence?

Kushner: The residue is everywhere. There's the layer of it that many people know--the American cars, the rusted and burned-out neon signs for Woolworth's and Zenith Televisions et cetera in bigger cities like Havana and Santiago. In the Nipe Bay region, the northeastern part of what used to be called Oriente Province (now divided up) where my book takes place, suddenly, the residue is both less visible, and yet much, much stronger: the real story is there, lurking, and going there and excavating that residue was crucial to writing the book.

In Nicaro, for instance, it's a small mining town and there is no skeleton of midcentury American retail, and without an architectural heritage like you have in the cities, there was little to stop the Soviet-financed construction of huge Brutalist apartment buildings. So you don't think, shiny 1950s America when you get there. But everyone you speak to who is old enough knows they live in a former American colony, and when we went, all the Jamaicans and Haitians who had worked as butlers in the houses of my grandparents and their friends are still there, and they told me stories about the town in its colonial, er, heyday. The managers row, which features in my book, is still there, and the biggest house, which the mine administrator lived in, is now a school. Fidel had a real axe to grind with Nicaro--not unfounded, by any means--and I'm sure the children are aware that the facility's benefactor is a banished "yanqui" landlord.

Preston, the United Fruit Company town, has been renamed, but it was an American town in every way. United Fruit built the entire infrastructure, the roads, the electricity, ran their own mail service, the trains, shipping, everything. The town they built is still there, and the houses, once uniformly "company property" even in paint scheme (all over Central and South America United Fruit painted their towns a particular shade of mustard yellow) have never been repainted. And so what paint is still there is a palimpsest of the Old Order: faded patches of mustard yellow linger on the weathered exterior of every house. The old company hotel where my mother used to sit on the porch and sip her cane juice, waiting for my grandmother to shop, is still there, but it has no windows and the tile floors are cracked. United Fruit departed very quickly when Fidel nationalized the mills, and they left a huge cache of company records, which I discovered behind a chainlink fence in the back of the public library in Banes. The Cubans know it's part of their history, which is why it's in the library, but like every other detail of American life, its state of decay, moldering under a leaky roof, is part of the allure: a history erased, but not completely…

Amazon.com: My strongest sense of that moment (until I read your book) was from one of my favorite movies, the glorious documentary, I Am Cuba. Did that play a role in helping you imagine the times?

Kushner: Funny you should ask, because one of the images on my website, www.telexfromcuba.com, is a still I made from I Am Cuba, of women in a poolside beauty contest, to depict what La Mazière means when he speaks of a place "where dreams are marbled with nothingness"--i.e., a place simultaneously at a height and in decline, upon which he's projecting his own knowledge of decline, having lived through the German occupation of Paris and their subsequent departure eastward, as they were crushed by the Allies and the party was over. I thought a lot about whether or not to use this image, because the film was not made in the fifties, but in 1964, and moreover with a real political agenda. That said, it is indeed an amazing film, and the tracking shot into the swimming pool at the beginning is right up there with the tracking shot at the beginning of Touch of Evil as a stunning technical feat (and was even replicated by Paul Thomas Anderson in the opening of Boogie Nights). But I Am Cuba is more than just beautiful and strange. It is, as I said, extremely dogmatic, it's a piece of propaganda, really, and yet it is one of only a handful of films that you show you what prerevolutionary Havana might have looked like. There are no films made in the fifties that actually portray life in Havana at that time, at least that I am aware of. It's the closest thing, despite its dogma. And even its dogma can take on a kind of surreal charm: the "evil" Americans are all played by Russians, who have these heavy and angular Slavic jaws. Also, they speak with Russian accents.

From Publishers Weekly

Kushner's colorful, character-driven debut succinctly captures the essence of life for a gilded circle of American expats in pre-Castro Cuba, chronicling a mélange of philandering spouses, privileged carousers and their rebellious children. K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer are raised among the American industrial strongholds of the United Fruit Company sugar plantation and the Nicaro nickel mines. As adolescents, they are confronted by the complexities of local warfare and backstabbing politics, while their parents remain ignorant of the impending revolution. Meanwhile, in Havana, burlesque dancer Rachel K and her former SS officer companion become entangled in Castro's revolution. Toward the end of 1957, K.C.'s brother, Del, joins the rebels, and within a month the United Fruit Company's cane fields are ablaze. Throughout the following year, the attacks on U.S.-operated businesses intensify; political and personal loyalties are shuffled and betrayed; and the violence between the rebels and Batista's forces escalate. The action, while slowed at times by Kushner's tendency to revisit plot points from multiple points of view, culminates in a riveting drama. Given the recent Cuba headlines, Kushner's tale, passionately told and intensively researched, couldn't have come at a more opportune time. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 543 KB
  • Print Length: 339 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1416561048
  • Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (July 1, 2008)
  • Sold by: Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001BQULX8
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,143 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
89 of 99 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Country In Turmoil -- Civil War In Cuba July 5, 2008
Format:Hardcover
Rachel Kushner has written a great book that will be up for all the book awards at the end of the year. She has recreated the Cuba of the 1950's, an American outpost run by the Big Business, riped for the revolution of Fidel Castro. Seen mainly through the eyes of American ex-pats who are oblivious to the 'Cuba for Cubans" theme, the writing is lush and descriptive with a cast of memorable characters : the Castro brothers, a Nazi, a stripper, an American family falling apart, and the Cuban People. The author has done her research on the poverty, the customs, the era of the 1950's. "Telex From Cuba" has a feel of "Casablanca" crossed with "To Kill a Mockingbird."
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49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Messy August 1, 2008
By Nozama
Format:Hardcover
This book was okay. Not bad, not great. Some of the writing was excellent -- especially the descriptions of the characters and the towns in which they lived. I could see it all so clearly. On the downside: the book went in and out of different time periods, different places and was told from the perspective of different characters. All of this made for a confusing read. Half of the pages are devoted to revolutionaries and people working in the 'underground' -- these pages were frustrating to me. There was so much innuendo that half the time I didn't know what the author was referring to. I'm guessing others would have the same issue unless they're familiar with the history/politics of Cuba, Haiti, rebel movements, etc. It took too long for this story line to connect to the other story line (the expatriates living in Cuba). Halfway through, i found myself skimming whole paragraphs. I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it, but, it did not live up to my expectations.
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37 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating journey July 19, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have absolutely loved my journey through this book. I thought I would not find another book about Cuba to be as brilliant as Carlos Erie's Waiting for Snow in Havana and Eduardo Santiago's Tomorrow They Will Kiss. But this one, although maybe not as brilliantly written, is a wonderful read. I read a review in The New York Times that suggested maybe Ms. Kushner was not necessarily always factual with her history of Cuba. That is something I certainly would not know having lived most of my life in the North where there is, on the whole, little interest in Cuban history. But for years I have lived in Key West and now Miami Beach--and I have grown very interested in Cuba, its history, and most especially the "take" on Cuba from those who write about it now. I lived in the fifties--in the North--so I related well to some of the characters from the United States who find themselves cast in a human drama of a large company owned and operated by a company in the United States. The characters--fictional and non-fictional--seem so real to me. What a great way to learn about Cuban history--the Revolution!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Revolution is the source of law" January 5, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Rachel Kushner's first novel, TELEX FROM CUBA, is about the second time that Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar ruled Cuba directly. In the 1930s, as military chief, he had pulled the strings of his puppet, President Ramon Grau. From 1940 to 1944 he was an elected President. Eight years later, rather than face certain defeat as one of three candidates in a scheduled election for President, Batista seized power in March 1952. Running unopposed, he was later elected. He resigned his office January 1, 1958, having been forced to flee abroad by armed rebel Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. The novel roves back and forth mainly between 1952 and early 1959.

Not long after Batista seized the Presidency, young lawyer Fidel Castro filed a protest with Cuba's Urgency Court. That court ruled that "Revolution is the source of law" (p. 123).

In this otherwise very promising novel there is a confusion of narrators: a God-like anonymous one plus two American children. There are so many American children and their parents living in American enclaves in eastern Cuba that a list of characters (not provided) is close to indispensable.

In an undated interview presented at [...] author Rachel Kushner lists her sources for TELEX FROM CUBA: books, ideas, her father's having worked in one of the two enclaves described in TELEX FROM CUBA, various films and documentaries and the life of real French aristocrat Christian de La Mazière, who had joined the German Waffen SS in 1944. There is no evidence presented that in real life Maziere ever worked in or visited Cuba.

As others have noted, too much diverse material in this novel works against unity of plot. La Maziere and his exotic girl friend Rachel K.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a fresh perspective October 19, 2008
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Telex from Cuba is an engrossing novel of the years leading up to Castro's revolution, told from the point of view of the American children. But it's different from so many of the other books written on this topic because this story is not so much about the "bigger picture" of politics and revolution but the little and hitherto untold story of the children who grew up in Cuba on American plantations. Their parents had come (as K.C. puts it at the end) "to take" from Cuba and from the Cubans but the children who were sometimes born in and grew up in Cuba were different. For they learned to love the land and the people. More even than their own families sometimes.

As a result of this unique perspective, the first thing you notice are the colors--the red of the nickel plant, of the fire and the sunset; the green and the blue of the sea; the promised ivory of the night-blooming cereus Willy planted underneath Everly's bedroom window (an act of a lover). And then the colors of the skin. Black and pink for the Haitians like Willy--Black skin and pink hands; shades of brown for the Cubans (the lighter, the less noticeable the brown the higher the social status), white for the Americans in their exclusive club from which the not-quite-white enough Cuban President was blacklisted; white for the French Nazi.

And because of this unique perspective (a child's perspective), the characters are always evolving. There's Mr. Blousse who (at first glance) seems a breath of fresh air because the color of the skin does not seem to matter to him at least. Else why would he have an Haitian wife and Black daughters? But then we learn (from Willy the Haitian boy Mr. Blousse had bought) that the daughters and the wife were like slaves in that house. As was Willy himself. Until he ran away.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Fascinating and easy to read. Read it right after a visit to Cuba and loved it.
Published 9 days ago by cate
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
It was very interesting , but a little slow reading
Published 23 days ago by Susan O.
2.0 out of 5 stars I could not finish reading this book.
I could not finish reading this book. Basically it was not interesting for me even when I came from Cuba
Published 1 month ago by Beatriz De Nogales
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing book. Jumps from person to person, hard ...
Disappointing book. Jumps from person to person, hard to follow. From the point of view of a young person, but does not stay with that person, and although it gives a feeling for... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mary H. Strasser
4.0 out of 5 stars history
Cuba is such a mystery so I liked reading about what happened. My father had worked there in the sugar industry years earlier but I think conditions were much the same. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Francine A
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
Really liked this book. Found old pix relating to Cuba and this company/era on the internet. Very interesting.
Published 4 months ago by Margaret Pollyea
3.0 out of 5 stars I like how the author injects herself (
I like how the author injects herself (?) into the tale. A well crafted novel about a fascinating period in Caribbean history.
Published 4 months ago by R.Michael McSweeney
2.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't connect
The topic was interesting,but I couldn't connect to
the characters. I didn't finish this book which is rare for me.
Published 5 months ago by Maureen Winick
4.0 out of 5 stars Cuban Lives during Revolution
This novel gains much strength from detailing political moments of the Revolution as they registered or failed to register on the lives of disparate Americans working for the huge... Read more
Published 5 months ago by illy billy
5.0 out of 5 stars Very fine novel
Rachel Kushner's very fine novel, Telex from Cuba, is a very rewarding read. It may not make it to the required reading list of classes of literature, but it should. Read more
Published 5 months ago by David
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More About the Author

Rachel Kushner's new novel, The Flamethrowers, was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award, the 2014 Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and was longlisted for the Bailey's Prize. It was chosen as one of the five best novels of the Year by the New York Times, and was on almost every Best Book list of 2013. Her debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was also a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the California Book Award, and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book. Kushner's fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Believer, Artforum, and Bookforum. She is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow and lives in Los Angeles.

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