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Viva la Revolucion!
on 11 November 2013
Kushner's first novel is an account of the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro, told largely from the point of view of the Americans living in Cuba in the 1950s, in particular a group living in Oriente Province who worked for the United Fruit Company and who mostly supported Cuba's tyrannical president Batista. Kushner has a vast cast of Americans, including two teenagers (K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer - why both the male Stites and the female Lederer have such androgynous Christian names in the 1950s I'm not sure), their parents and siblings, an unhappy wife who has a crush on a Cuban factory owner, a working-class American family who are trying their luck away from the USA and various other couples in various degrees of prosperity and right-wingery. There are also a couple of teen rebels - K.C.'s older brother Del, and a boy called Phillip Mackey - who sympathise with Castro's cause. Alongside their story runs another, set in Havana, which tells the adventures of Christian de La Maziere, a French aristocrat who joined the Nazis in World War II and is now offering his sympathy to Castro's men, without much caring for their cause, and a 'zazou' dancer called Rachel K, who pretends to be French but is in fact Cuban, who is spying for Castro, and sleeping with him, Batista and La Maziere. Kushner plays around with reality here, as La Maziere was a real person - but never in fact went to Cuba or was involved in the revolution.
Kushner describes Cuba in the 1950s immaculately, and I learnt a good deal about the politics of the time that I hadn't known before reading the book. She painted a convincing and interesting picture of ex-pat American life in Cuba, and of the seedy glamour of Havana. However, though the historical/political side of my brain was engaged, I never got particularly caught up in the novel. The character are thinly portrayed, and few are developed in detail. Although we get quite a lot of the story narrated by K.C. and Everly, I never felt I got to know either of them particularly well or was encouraged to empathize with them. Characters had a habit of turning up and then suddenly disappearing only to resurface some 50 pages later, which meant that one had to concentrate very hard all the time simply to keep abreast of who was who. I also found the thriller aspect of the story involving La Maziere and Rachel K unlikely - and again both characters were seriously under-developed (we never learn why La Maziere joined the Nazis and if he had Nazi sympathies or was just an opportunist, or indeed why he is working for the Cuban revolutionaries, or why Rachel K is committed to the revolution). The teasing parallel between the author's name and her character Rachel K's name I found annoying rather than witty. And it was hard to feel much about either La Maziere or Rachel K: the trouble with having characters that constantly lie is that one can never quite grasp their personalities. This side of the story also had a tendency to get overly sensational - as in the scene where La Maziere is raped by Fidel Castro! The pacing of the novel was also slightly odd - a long, leisurely depiction of US life in Cuba (based on Kushner's own mother's experiences as a child, apparently) and then a rush of action at the end when the revolution began, and a very quick epilogue set some forty years later. The ending, with Everly revisiting Cuba as an old woman, was beautiful but felt a bit brief.
I came away from the novel feeling that Kushner is very talented, but her rather detached style, and lack of real emotional involvement with her characters didn't quite suit me. Interestingly I see readers have raised this point about her second novel, 'The Flamethrowers', which I am going to read next. Still - for all my reservations this was certainly an interesting way to find out a bit more about Cuban history.