Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our Island Neighbor

When my friend Ellen, an intrepid traveler and fearless adventurer, announced that her next trip this Spring would be to Cuba, I had to admit, if only to myself, that I knew very little about this island neighbor, its culture or its history. There were a few names: Fidel Castro, Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crisis, but nothing really substantive. As travel restrictions from the US are easing, one can envision the day when Cuba, whether or not it remains nominally communist, will be quite different from what it is today or has been.

At this point in my life I prefer to learn my history the easy way- through fiction. From Charlotte's blog, I knew that Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos has some history of pre-Castro Havana. After some searching I decided on Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner. It helped in my selection that this book was a National Book Award Finalist in 2008.

The story takes place in Cuba in the late 1950's (Castro's overthrow of Batista was successful in 1959) for the most part in the insular America colony of the sugar and nickel companies' employees. It turns out that this is also personal history for Kushner as her grandparents and mother lived in Cuba during that time. Through the use of multiple narrators Kushner is able to elicit the reader's sympathies for opposing parties to the developing conflict although I personally was often confused at first as to which narrator was speaking. These several narrators also describe the same event but from his or her own perspective. For example, when one of the company executives is kidnapped by the rebels, we are given several tellings: from the other expats, from one of the rebels and from the kidnapped victim himself - all very different as you can imagine. I really liked this technique. It is a good reminder that with respect to historical events or even events in our own lives we may wish to suspend our initial judgment. (I suspect that there are other novels out there that also tell the same story by different participants. If you know of one, please leave the title/author in a Comment.)

I almost missed the very creative website that complements this book with period photographs to illustrate certain lines of text. If you do nothing else, click on the link to check out the photograph on the website portal!

Now that I have some context I can move on to Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran, a non-fiction account of her travels in Cuba today.

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