I used to be a big re-reader. There are a few reasons. For starters I’m a big fan of plot so I try to start a book for the first time knowing as little about it as possible. Re-reading strips away that concern with what’s going to happen next and allows different parts of the book to surface: language, form, voice, whatever. It’s also comforting to read a book knowing exactly what’s going to happen and knowing that you already like it. It’s like bowling with bumpers (the only way I bowl). Re-reading also allows me to keep track of complex plots and characters better, gaining a new appreciation for the way it all fits together. It’s interesting how often I misremember things, even parts of the book that are really important to me, and on re-reading new bits jump out and stick in my brain. I like that.
Now I have a small human on my hands so as a busy mum I have less time for reading and even less time for re-reading. But I took the time to re-read Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner.
Because of said tiny human and subsequent decrease in reading time I’ve been going out of my way to only buy and read books I feel pretty confident I’ll like. (That’s a bad thing but the upcoming Tournament of Books should help.) I knew how much I loved Rachel Kushner so I ordered a little book of three short stories called The Strange Case of Rachel K. The stories are all centred on Cuba: ‘The Great Exception’ is gallop from the Spanish colonisation in 1492 to the destitution of a Hawaiian immigrant in the early 1900s; ‘Debouchement’ tells of illegal broadcasts by a faith healer and the luxury of the Pan American club in the years of Cuba as a United States protectorate; ‘The Strange Case of Rachel K’ is inspired by the true yet vague story of a courtesan murdered in a hotel room but recasts her as a woman of agency who finds a counterpart in a French Nazi.
The whole time I was reading I had this strange feeling of having read it before. It was only halfway through the final story that I realised I had: whole chunks of these stories are replicated in Telex from Cuba. I first read Telex from Cuba three years ago, on the back of my beloved The Flamethrowers. It’s the story of Cuba on the cusp of revolution told from the various perspectives. There are two American children living in the luxury of the American towns set up for cane farm workers, Rachel K, the dancer and courtesan who is a favourite of both Cuban politicians and revolutionary organisers, and real life French agitator Christian de La Mazière who is very much out for himself.
Kushner beautiful conjures the threatening political conditions using metaphors of the humid, oppressive climate and the slowly disintegrating faux-luxury. The children’s growing awareness works perfectly to slowly reveal the brutality behind the facade of their American lives and the book is filled with fascinating tangents – bits like the illegal broadcasts of the faith healer from ‘Debouchement’, the edible parrots from ‘The Great Exception’, the zazou subculture appropriated by ‘Rachel K’. There are so many great passage and lines and it was particularly interesting to see the bits that had made their way from Kushner’s short stories into the book.
Re-reading Telex made me fall in love with it the way I had done with The Flamethrowers. Like The Flamethrowers it is meandering yet thorough, full of all sorts of interesting stories that come together into a whole bigger than it’s parts. It’s huge in scope yet reveals so much about the individuals involved along the way. It is historical yet personal, evocative and searing. I loved it so much and one day I’ll read it again.