I have recently read Rachel Kushner’s novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers. They are both compelling reads. Telex is more coherent, telling the story of Castro’s take-over of Cuba, mostly from the perspective of Americans living and working in Cuba at the time. The narrative evokes both the blindness of those Americans to what is happening—and the nostalgia for pre-Castor Cuba (and their lives there) that afflicts these Americans after they return to the States.
The Flamethrowers is a mess. The story wanders all over the place, with various characters and incidents offered up with no subsequent follow through. But is it always interesting. In its second half, it wanders into narrating radical (and violent) political action, specifically the Italian Red Brigade of the 1970s and their kidnappings and executions of business executives. The narrative voice during this section of the novel is curiously disengaged. It is not best described as a recording of the events that refuses to suggest any stance (moral or emotional) to them. Rather, there is a kind of unreality about the whole narration, as if (without ever explicitly stating this) the events are presented as an unbelievable fiction, as a visit to an alternative world neither the narrator nor her readers could actually credit. It’s like the play violence of a video game rather than violence that is actually experienced as a shock or a grim fact. There is something pro forma about these sections of the novel, as contrasted to the tale of the heroine’s experiences in the first half. Adding to this effect is the fact that the heroine walks away from the violence in Italy (in which she has become entangled) with little to no discernible effect on her life or attitudes. It’s as if it didn’t happen.
The violence in Telex is not sidestepped in the same way. Maybe it’s because we are dealing with a successful revolution—and with a civil war that saw wide-spread violence on both sides. In any case, Telex contends with the issue of the ways violence is utilized in political struggles—and with the divide between those willing (able?) to deploy violence in cold-hearted, “calculated” ways and those to whom violence is beyond the pale (for whatever emotional or moral reasons).
The following passage leads me to think about the connection between meaning and “the deliberate.” Obviously, we can do things that convey meanings we never intended to convey. But there are also cases where we very carefully set out to communicate something, to insure that what we do or say is fraught with meaning. Cases where we take special care to see that our meaning gets across. Kushner ties this heightened attention to meaning to certain acts of violence, ones that can be deemed “rhetorical,” through a speech given by the character La Maziere to a group of Castro’s guerillas after they have captured two of the counter-revolutionary forces.
“Executions, La Maziere continued, his voice rising to be sure everyone heard, was an act of intent, purpose, and exactitude. Assassination was a far lower act, an act of opportunity, or worse, ‘necessity’—a word he said as if it were a soiled, smelly rag he held between two fingers. Execution was a ritualized killing, he emphasized. It was never, ever, an act of necessity. It was always an act of choice, a calculated delivery of justice. And only by the elevated loft of choice, he explained, could the act of killing take on symbolic meaning. Killing, he said, had meaning, voluptuous and mystical meaning that should never be squandered. An execution was a rhetorical weapon, a statement that could not be disproved, just as a man could not be restored from death” (pg. 232 of Telex from Cuba).
Meaning is enhanced by ritual, by the elaborate staging/demonstration of deliberate choice, and by full publicity, full openness to view.