There is a scene in Rachel Kushner’s novel Telex From Cuba in which Rachel K, a burlesque dancer at the Tokio Cabaret in Havana, witnesses Batista, president and dictator of Cuba, at work on his “Novel”. By this, he means “his daily log of wiretaps”. “He tapped telephones and offices, those of his wife, ex-wife, his ministers, certain American businessmen, all the newspapers”. Meanwhile, Rachel K is spying on him, “plainly and openly”, as Rachel Kushner puts it; she is spying on the spy, writing a novel of her own, so to speak. Her notes will probably go to Prio, the president who was ousted by Batista in a military coup; but some of the information might also end up with the French agitator Christian de la Mazière, and the revolutionaries. And then there is of course Rachel Kushner herself, the novelist from whose imagination all of this has sprung, who is in her own way spying on Rachel K spying. It raises some interesting questions about the politics not just of this political novel, but also of the novel as a genre. The novel appears to be at the same time with Rachel Kushner, with Rachel K, and with Batista. It is at the same time a tool of the dictatorship, of the revolution, and of their reflective (and brilliant) narration in the post-9/11 age of terror.
Ian Watt begins the preface to his classic The Rise of the Novel saying that “[i]n 1938 I began a study of the relation between the growth of the reading public and the emergence of the novel in eighteenth-century England; and in 1947 it eventually took shape as a Fellowship Dissertation for St John’s College, Cambridge”. Hidden in Watt’s semi-colon lies the second World War. It’s as if Watt’s study, begun in 1938, remained unaffected by the experience of the war; it’s as if he briefly left his writing desk in 1938 for the war, and then returned to it in 1947 exactly as before. Watt’s account of modernity and of the rise of the modern literary genre of the novel did not change because of the war. In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Giorgio Agamben provocatively argues that the camp is the matrix of the modern. Although he develops this argument through an analysis of the concentration camp Auschwitz, he uses the term camp to refer to any kind of situation or state in which “power confronts nothing other than biological life without any mediation”. Reading Watt and Agamben together appears to raise the question of the novel’s potential complicity with the camp. It is this complicity that Telex From Cuba flirts with when it represents Batista at work on his novel.
However, there is no blind essentializing here with respect to the technical object or apparatus of the novel. Everything depends on its use: on whether it is Batista using it, or Rachel K, or Rachel Kushner. The novel is dictatorship, and revolution, and reflection.
References: Kushner, Rachel. Telex From Cuba. New York: Scribner, 2009; Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Middlesex: Penguin, 1970; Agamben, Giorgio. Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. Image: Dan Davis, The Sentinels, oil on canvas, 130 cm x 225 cm, 2009.