When the United Fruit Company exploited Cubans

Monday, July 07, 2008
When the United Fruit Company exploited Cubans

Fiction review: 'Telex From Cuba'

David Abrams, Special to The Chronicle

Monday, July 7, 2008

Telex From Cuba
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner; 322 pages; $25

Sometimes history makes the best bedrock for fiction. With a hard,
bottom sediment of factual details, novelists can build layers of
character, dialogue and contrived events that transport readers to
places the actual truth never could.

Such is the case with Rachel Kushner's first novel, "Telex From Cuba,"
set in the waning years of the American-owned United Fruit Company in
Cuba. Kushner fills the novel with enough vivid details to make
readers feel as if they are on the island at the zenith of American

In fact, reading "Telex From Cuba" often seems like leafing through a
scrapbook of memories. With good reason: The novel is based in part on
Kushner's family history. Her mother grew up in Cuba in the 1950s, in
the United Fruit Company enclave where "Telex from Cuba" takes place.

Until Fidel Castro rose to power, the Americans controlled Cuba's two
most profitable exports, its sugar and nickel operations.

As Kushner documents it, the United Fruit Company employed 14,000
sugar cane cutters and owned 330,000 acres of arable land, 850
railcars, two company DC-3s and a 75-foot yacht. Business during the
Eisenhower era was, in all senses of the word, sweet.

"You could sit in the Pan-American Club, which had a bank of panoramic
windows perched out over the water like the prow of an ocean liner,
and watch the boats coming in and being loaded with bags of raw

During cutting season, the mill processed 15 million pounds of sugar
every day. That's why a fire set by rebels led by Fidel and his
brother, Raul, is so devastating and signals the start of the American
decline in Cuba. Along with the United Fruit Company, the Nicaro
nickel mine has crowded the island with even more Americans, and the
natives are more than restless; they're agitating for a revolution to
overthrow the U.S.-friendly regime of Fulgencia Batista.

The cast in Kushner's novel is large and varied, at times so large
that lesser characters fade into disposable blandness, but she wisely
chooses to focus on children of the American executives. The best
parts of the novel are told through the eyes of K.C. Stites and Everly
Lederer, who tells us on the opening page, "Sometimes children are
more clever than adults and not prone to the same vices."

There is plenty of vice and licentiousness among the adults of the
novel; bits of F. Scott Fitzgerald are layered in the sediment of the
narrative, and you can sense a Gatsbyesque tragedy brewing from the
start. Mix volatile politics into the equation, and it's not hard to
chart the destiny of the characters. "Batista was persona non grata
with the Cubans, and we were caught in the middle," K.C. narrates.
"Fidel and Raul, these were local boys, and I think Daddy was hoping
he could reason with them."

However, the company executives have the myopic ambition of
imperialists; they're unable to see the pending revolution is not
about economy, it's about Cuban society's widening chasm of class.
Kushner complicates (and clutters) the book with a secondary plot
involving a former Nazi sympathizer and a burlesque dancer named
Rachel K who help foment rebellion in Havana.

Kushner too often lets the novel stray into diluted John Le Carré
territory. She's at her best in the non-Havana scenes when she
immerses readers in the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous Americans.

Dinners at the Stites household are a formal affair: Daddy wears an
immaculately starched white duck suit, Mother sports pearls and the
children are seen, not heard, while the butler stoically serves four
courses at tables set with polished silver, good china and finger
bowls. Is it any wonder the "local boys" want to oust the rich
American capitalists?

Thanks to the bedrock of history, we all know how the story ends
politically, but Kushner's evocation of the Americans' decline is
fresh and compelling. She takes us to a place and time we've seldom
visited before.

David Abrams is a writer in Maryland. E-mail him at


This article appeared on page E - 5 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Posted by Cuba Journal at 7/07/2008 10:30:00 AM Email ThisBlogThis!
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