Back When Cuba Was Libre

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By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at
Friday, July 18, 2008


By Rachel Kushner

Scribner. 322 pp. $25

Wonderful reviews have been coming thick and fast for "Telex From Cuba," and they're more than well deserved. This first novel by Rachel Kushner is a pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents; they'll forget their arthritis and pneumonia, I promise, once they walk into a land that's gone now, but not yet quite forgotten: Cuba in the last few years before Fidel Castro took over.

For those who remember those days, or even for those who take the Cuba story at second hand, the frame has always been presented to us as Democracy vs. Communism. Kushner (whose mother spent several childhood years in the compound of the United Fruit Co., which owned almost all of the eastern half of the island) swivels the camera for the reader. Forget Communism, she says, look past it, or better still, look just there, in the foreground, at the coastal villages of Preston and Nicaro. Preston is for the white employees of the United Fruit Co.: See their fancy houses and squadrons of servants, and out just beyond the edges, the shacks where Jamaican and Haitian workers live without running water? And over there is Nicaro. That's where they've started up the American nickel mine again. The whites who live there are a cut below, but they're still white, and they're living beyond their wildest dreams. And see that one wacky wife who was so scared of the tropics she brought along seven Dubuque canned hams in those huge triangular containers -- along with her loser husband and her three daughters -- just in case the food on this lush island might be inedible?

Losers, these latter-day white colonials. Even the Stites family, the clan at the center of the novel, who live in the biggest house in Preston, whose tyrannical father is the august head honcho of madly powerful United Fruit, might have been a little hayseed back in the States. Mrs. Stites only went to DePauw University, after all, not Vassar or Smith. Mr. Stites rules as an emperor over his domain. Good china, fine silverware, whispering servants, Mrs. Stites ringing a bell between courses during dinner. It's a life, when one thinks about it, not unlike those of Protestant missionaries out in early-20th-century China: provincial Midwesterners, most of them, who made the voyage to save souls and found themselves happily swathed in luxury, until they were kicked out.

Kicked out! That's what's going to happen to all these arrogant, nervous, insecure Americans; we know it, but they don't know it yet. The men leech wealth from the earth and its true inhabitants, and they only dimly understand that within Cuba, immigrant Jamaicans and Haitians cut cane, that house servants scorn outdoor servants who, in their turn, scorn immigrant workers. The whites know that up in the mountains, rebels are plotting to change government, but it doesn't worry them unduly. United Fruit has worked with every government before, and aren't Castro and his brothers the sons of a wealthy Cuban landowner? Besides, the Americans can't stand Batista because he's mulatto. They blackball him (unanimously) from their best social club.

We see this story mostly through the eyes of two naive adolescents, K.C. Stites, younger son of the United Fruit king, and Everly Lederer, a cross-eyed little girl over in Nicaro, daughter of the Dubuque ham lady. When the family hires a black Haitian houseboy, Everly falls for him. Not in a sexual way. She just recognizes pure beauty when she sees it.

Woven through K.C. and Everly's story, like a single silver thread sewn through unbleached linen, is a third narrative, which verges on the mythological. Here the author takes us to the other end of the island, to "glamorous" Havana, showing us its glittery enticements: There's a Cuban showgirl who poses as French, spending hours each day drawing fishnet stockings on her legs, and her suitor, a traitorous Frenchman, whose favorite beverage is "a rum drink with crushed mint and morphine crystals dissolving in a slush of ice." Oh my goodness! Where is that drink now?

"Lost" and "Gone," as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the early pages of "The Last Tycoon," lost and gone. A world we'll never see again, any part of it. Rachel Kushner uses her considerable powers to bring it back for us, one last time.

Sunday in Book World

· The man who saved the animals.

· The art dealer who forged Vermeer.

· A Vietnamese aristocrat's fall from grace.

· The story of the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

· Plus, Debra Winger's writing life.

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