When Americans think of '50s Cuba, they tend to picture Che Guevara with beard and cap, Fidel Castro ranting in tattered fatigues -- and maybe the romantic early days of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club.
But a new novel shows us, instead, United Fruit Co. executives in starched linen suits, daughters who play Chopin preludes on pianos groaning with humidity, a mysterious exotic dancer who comforts dictators, and company wives who wile away their days in a cocktail haze, dreaming of French perfume. The cane cutters and "the help" are viewed mostly obliquely, as if through the shimmer of tropical heat. Just before the revolution, then, we see the crisp world of Anglo privilege it overturned.
These scenes were created, or re-created, by Rachel Kushner, an L.A.-based art writer whose compelling debut novel, "Telex From Cuba," is out this week with strong early reviews (as well as a coveted blurb from writer's writer Paula Fox).
The book was built from extensive research, as well as family lore: Her mother spent four years, before her 15th birthday, in what was then called Cuba's Oriente province, the daughter of a middle-class nickel-mine manager.
"She was slightly aware at the time, and certainly aware later, of a kind of disparity between the way they lived in the American colony and the way the Cubans lived," Kushner, a youngish 39-year-old, said while eating moros y cristianos, or black beans and rice, at a Cuban restaurant near her home in Echo Park, which she shares with her professor husband and their 10-month-old son.
"But I think it was a very free place for a child, compared to living in the States. Especially in the '50s: Things were racially a little more mixed than they were here, and it was just a wonderful place to be a kid -- very tropical, very beautiful."
Two of the novel's key characters are children: This allows Kushner to frame a complicated racial and political situation through relatively innocent eyes, free of both ideology and adult politeness. But more practically, the children of the '50s are, in many cases, still alive to serve as sources, while the adults of the period have mostly passed away. (Several of Kushner's subjects died as she researched the book.)
She was struck, during the interviews she conducted on visits to Cuba and Florida, by the intensity of her subjects' memories as their stories called a lost world back into being. What she's writing about, after all, is a place "essentially wiped off the map." She has a hard time making simple sense of it all.
"A historical event represents the best and the worst of that moment," said Kushner, a graduate of UC Berkeley and Columbia who, despite her dedication to Hegelian theory, comes off as casually bohemian. "There were people in Cuba who truly had substantial things to gain from revolution. There were people who had things to lose in the revolution. I think they're all allowed to have their memories of what happened."
The research trips
Kushner -- who was raised in San Francisco's Haight district by poetry-loving scientist parents and moved to L.A. in 2003 -- made three long visits to Cuba over the six years it took her to write the book. Most of the novel takes place in Oriente (Spanish for "East"), a fertile province then owned almost entirely by American interests. (Roughly 330,000 acres of sugar cane fields were owned by United Fruit.)
"It became a treasure hunt in a way: There are no public libraries of any kind in Preston or Nicaro," the towns where the novel was set. "But I would hear a rumor, like 'so-and-so has every copy of the United Fruit Co. magazine,' and I would show up with this little entourage and knock on their door."
She came across a wide range of political views -- some sympathetic to the revolution, others who called Cuban workers "peons" -- as well as memories, from the child who sees his father burned and bleeding from the fires set in his fields to the butler who became a town mayor after the revolution. Her grandfather's assistant became what she calls a national hero because of his technical ability at the nickel plant after the Americans left.
"I wanted to bring out the excitement of the revolution and also give some sense of why it overlooked some of its brighter possibilities," she said. "The thrill of liberation from the cane cutters, the loss of that world for the Americans, the kids who loved it and had to leave. And also this very open moment . . . of what could happen before things became ideological."
Her most important source was the son of a United Fruit manager -- ages 9 and 15 during the events of the novel -- who serves as the model for one of her narrators. Kushner calls him the novel's muse.
"He talked about his life as if it was a childhood paradise for him -- and he wasn't a sentimental man. But he paused at a point and said, 'We went down there, and we took.' And I stole that line for the book, because it just rang so true."