Moral ambiguity in pre-Castro Cuba
TELEX FROM CUBA
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner, 322 pp., $25
Rachel Kushner's debut novel, like many first offerings, possesses a vivid sense of place because of the location's close connection with the author's personal history. Kushner's setting, Cuba's Oriente Province in the decade before that country's revolution, fortunately provides terrific raw material for fiction. Kushner's mother grew up there, living in an American enclave created by the United Fruit Co.
In her book, Kushner portrays the moral ambiguity of 1950s Americans who, when they think about the native Cuban population at all, think of themselves as generous paternalists providing economic opportunity to the masses. Many Cubans, of course, especially the leftist rebels led by Fidel Castro, want to kick out the Americans and end the perceived economic imperialism of United Fruit.
Kushner opens her novel with a fire in the company sugar cane fields, an act of sabotage by the rebels. As Malcolm Stites, a company executive, organizes a firefighting operation, his teenage son K.C. watches the blaze: "It was like falling snow, lacy gray flakes that sifted through the air and wafted back up on the hot drafts from the blaze. . . . It just whirled around, a circular blizzard of cane ash."
The elder Stites feels betrayed by this sabotage. He'd negotiated an accommodation with the rebels, but he'd also been helping Cuba's pro-American leader Fulgencio Batista acquire weapons from the US government. As narrator K.C. Stites describes the situation, "Daddy's deal with Batista wrecked daddy's deal with the rebels." Ironically, Malcolm Stites's oldest son had run away to join the rebels and had masterminded this sugar cane fire.
Against this backdrop of political instability and shifting loyalties, Kushner explores the dynamics of several expatriate American families living in the enclave. Readers see all of the petty jealousies, the racism, the overwhelming sense of privilege, the extramarital affairs, and the boozing that defines social life for these Americans on the brink. At the Pan-American Club, there's always music, dancing, and liquor; celebrities like Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, and Ernest Hemingway show up too.
Kushner's finest achievement is in crafting a character whose moral ambiguity offers the book's most gripping scenes. He is Christian La Mazière, a Machiavellian French arms dealer and former Nazi collaborator who plays all sides against each other to maximize his sales. La Mazière has a romantic and political relationship with a cabaret dancer who is also linked to Batista and Castro. The interaction of these two morally ambivalent characters, as they scheme and try to understand each other's moves, is engrossing.
Kushner uses La Mazière's connection to the rebels to show how Castro and his revolutionaries lived in the mountains and planned the overthrow of Batista. These are excellent scenes, but there aren't enough of them. Kushner's narrative too often gets bogged down in a multiplicity of characters. Readers will be hard-pressed to keep track of all the expatriate American families described and the petty rivalries among them. The lack of deep understanding by these Americans about their own fate, and their blindness regarding their own roles as colonizers, hinders them as dramatis personae, rendering them two-dimensional.
By book's end, the revolution has begun and the Americans are forced to flee to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay. Kushner's final pages feel anticlimactic as she describes how the connections among these characters have been lost. The story ends with Castro's rebels taking power, dancing and drinking at the Pan-American Club. Whether this is a good thing or bad, Kushner leaves up in the air.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.