Cuba in the fifties was a paradise for American expats. For employees of the United Fruit Company and the Nicaro Nickel Company--for the American employees, anyway--there were servants (carefully trained to cook good American food), parties, and private schools. For Cubans, and for the Haitians and Dominicans brought in as laborers, there was a life of servitude to people who couldn't even be bothered to taste the local cuisine, let alone learn the language.
Telex from Cuba is set in the years between 1952 and 1958, when all the Americans were evacuated in the aftermath of the revolution. Although it is a savvy and realistic story, due to Kushner's plumbing of family correspondence and memories, as well as solid historical research, it is not a grim one. We meet presidents and dictators, revolutionaries and show girls and speculators. But mostly, we become involved in the lives of the Americans who inhabit Preston and Nicaro, company towns of the United Fruit Company and Nicaro Nickel Company respectively.
The story consists of two narrative threads. The first is told by KC Stites, younger son of a United Fruit Company executive, who has spent his whole life in Cuba. The second is a third person narrative which, although it moves among the perspectives of various Americans, adult and child, in Nicaro, comes to us most vividly from that of Everly Lederer, who has just arrived with her family at the beginning of the novel. Both points of view are fresh and distinct, and all of the characters are complex and real.
Although this novel could not be called magical realism, still, there's something about the tropics, the sheer sensory, sensual overload of them, that feels magical, even when all of the events are strictly earthbound. Fragrance, color, heat, humidity, the brilliant sun, the sudden drenching rain, bananas and guavas and mangoes and limes and pineapples, sweat--and everybody sweats a lot, rotting vegetation, the sugar cane and nickel refineries--how can there be so much to see taste smell touch in such a small place?
Rachel Kushner's writing is gorgeous, simple and rich, and--mostly--just right for the period in which it's set. There are one or two jarring anachronisms of phrase, such as when the narrator says that a daughter has "outed" her father as a Cuban, but these are minor when placed in the context of the whole.
Telex From Cuba is a novel which has the potential to be a creeping bestseller, one that, perhaps, doesn't hit with a bang, but which word of mouth--and book groups, wonderful book groups!--keeps moving along.