There are many, many characters in Rachel Kushner’s novel about life in Cuba leading up to the Castro revolution. Which was my great problem with this, her first novel. Doesn’t an author owe it to her reader to drop some clue about who we are ‘listening’ to as we start a new section? Apparently not. Frustrating. And never allowed me to really take an interest in her characters.
There were two exceptions. The mysterious La Maziere, a sort of arms-dealer, soldier of fortune who has been around the block a few times. Also the curiously named Rachel K. Although I have no idea why Kushner might have slapped this moniker on her Zazou dancer/show-girl, she also had a distinctive voice, along with La Maziere.
All of the other characters (except the historical ones: Castro, Batista, Trujillo, etc.) are in Cuba as part of the great exploitation by United Fruit. One of these families is the Lederer’s. When the Lederer’s get a Dumont television, one of the first things they watched was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. This is funny, because the first tv show I can remember watching on our black and white Zenith was this same coronation. June 2, 1953. We lived in Miami. I was 8 years old. And we had just gotten our first tv.
Passages like this one are few and far between as when La Maziere gives this description of Rachel K:
…the nights he’d spent observing the girl and her zazou act, and eventually investigating for himself, only to discover that her odd combination of remoteness and availability went several layers deep. At ties he’d suspected she was only layers, like an onion, and if he peeled them away, to get to some kernel, some essence or truth, he’d end up with just a pile of glossy, eye-stinging skins, an odor on his hands that was difficult to wash away. People said lemons, but the lemons never worked: a hand would smell of onions until it was finished smelling of onions.
Sometimes these descriptions work. Mostly, they don’t.
I had the odd serendipitous moment while reading Elegance of the Hedgehog awhile ago. Here, another one. I had just watched a newly released to DVD French noir (Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle). One of the main characters is named Manouche.
In another passage where La Maziere describes Rachel K…
I forgot that my Miss K is French. Never mind her K name and that lovely Manouche face…
Now, either this is an anachronism (the film is from 1966) or Manouche refers to the gypsy jazz of Django Reonhart…either way…
With a little care, this could have been so much more accomplished of a novel. At any rate, Kushner is a name to watch in the future.