On June 28, 1997, a group of Cuban and Argentinian forensic experts discovered a communal grave at Vallegrande, Bolivia, that contained the remains of Ernesto Che Guevara and six other bodies. The charismatic revolutionary was murdered in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967 at the age of 39, yet he already was a revered symbol for the rebellious youth that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember a time when almost every UMAS or MEChA office in Colorado had the famous Che poster hanging on the wall. I'm sure that was one of the most popular posters throughout Aztlán.
Here are reviews of two books about Che that have been around for a while. They present down-to-earth perspectives about the man and his times from his closest friends and comrades, and from Che himself.
THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES
Ernesto Che Guevara
Verso, 1996; Ocean Press, 2003
In January, 1952, Che Guevara was a 24 year old medical student–-out of work, eager to find adventure and on the threshold of making decisions that would, eventually, alter not only his own life but also a good chunk of the history of the world. Almost on a whim, the young Argentinian decided to accompany a friend, another medical student named Alberto Granado, on a trek through South America on an ancient Norton motorcycle that they had nicknamed La Poderosa. Over the course of the next six months, as the two young men traveled from Argentina to Venezuela, Che Guevara kept travel diaries that chronicled his amazing journey. Those journals have been published as The Motorcycle Diaries.
During the course of their travels, Big Che and Little Che, as the two were known during the trip, encountered one colorful character after another. The travelers were often destitute and hungry, and forced to use their considerable charm or wit to obtain a place to rest or an evening meal. They fought, fell in love a number of times and, just as often, fell off the motorcycle. They were drenched in rain storms, cooked under the brilliant sun and suffered from bouts of strange illnesses. They met and interacted with native Indians, copper miners, lepers, police, tourists, and scam artists. Unexpectedly, the book is laced with a fine, sarcastic humor and a bookish student’s eye for detail.
For example, Che describes the Peruvian city of Cuzco in these rather poetic terms:
The only word to sum up Cuzco adequately is evocative. An impalpable dust of other ages covers it streets, rising in clouds like a muddy lake when you disturb the bottom. But there are two or three different Cuzcos, or rather, two or three ways in which the city can be evoked. [There]... is the Cuzco whose plaintive voice is heard in the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadores, in the violated, ruined temples, in the looted palaces, in the brutalized Indians. This Cuzco invites you to turn warrior, and, club in hand, defend freedom and the life of the Inca....And yet there is another Cuzco, a vibrant city which bears witness to the formidable courage of the soldiers who conquered this region in the name of Spain, expressed in their monuments, the museums and libraries, in the decoration of its churches and the distinctive features of the white leaders who still take pride in the Conquest. This Cuzco invites you to don armour .... Each of these Cuzcos can be admired on its own ....
Che’s motorcycle odyssey occurred seven years before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Obviously, the trip was an important, life-changing experience for the man whose smiling visage became an icon for the armed struggles of the oppressed peoples of the Third World. From Che’s own words we come to know him as charming, and a very human young man who already has fashioned a solidarity with the poor. But the book is not a political polemic, nor does it artificially elevate the man and contribute to the cult of personality that exists for many romantic, revolutionary figures. Che in The Motorcycle Diaries is on the brink of discovering his true self, and we are lucky to be an observer of that process.
CHE'S COMPAÑEROS: WITNESSES TO A LEGEND
Che’s Compañeros is a collection of photographs and interviews of men and women who fought and worked with Che Guevara. Given the subject matter, this book is not your usual coffee table conversation piece. There is no doubt that this book is intended to perpetuate the heroic image of Che and the Cuban revolutionaries.
Francis Giacobetti is a photographer who spent half-hour photographic sessions with twenty-one of Che’s compañeros. The photos were taken in 1997 in the lobby of the National Hotel in Havana. The subjects were asked to bring to the sessions an old photograph of Che and these, too, are reproduced in the book. Mauricio Vicent, Havana journalist, preserved the remarks of the different men and women and these have been published with the photos. As Vicent says in his introduction, many of the subjects “disclosed previously unknown episodes in the life of Che and anecdotes about him, making this book an exceptional document.”
I agree that this is an exceptional book. Giacobetti’s full page, full color, lightly tinted portraits are dramatic and engrossing. There is something special, almost classic, in the eyes, the wrinkles around the eyes or the smiles of these people who made history with Che. These portraits are contrasted with the cracked or faded black-and-whites provided by the subjects themselves, which show Che in the middle of the revolution, trying to organize the socialist state. They are unique.
The interviews tend to reveal the sentimental memories that friends have of someone they loved but who has been taken from them. For example, there are several pages of details provide by Aleida March, Che’s second and last wife, who had never given an interview and who had not spoken in public about the details of her life with Che. She was with him in the mountains and marched victoriously with the revolutionaries into Havana. In the midst of her remembrances, the editors have placed a striking photograph of the young Aleida, rifle slung over her shoulder, grinning broadly after a successful battle as she walks alongside Che, who, by the way, is busy perusing a book. She divulges that Che left her a one-hour cassette with a recording of his voice on which he recited their favorite poems of Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, Nicolas Guillen, and other poets.
Of course, there is a portrait of Fidel Castro, but he is the one subject who did not provide an interview for the book. There are quotes from Castro and his memories culled from other interviews are included. We learn that Che and Fidel met in 1955 in Mexico and that their first conversation lasted eight hours. We also learn the genesis of the nickname “Che” and the admission by Castro that frequently he dreams that he is talking with Che.
Che’s Compañeros is infused with words and pictures of courage, sacrifice and idealism. Giacobetti eloquently predicted the long lasting importance of this book with this observation: “As they talked about him for hours on end and studied his image in the pictures they produced from their pockets, he returned from the dust and became living flesh, sitting at the end of my bed, drinking rum and chomping on his cigar ... . Like them, I felt his presence, handsome as a god, with his large floppy beret. His eyes began to shine. We laughed, we hugged each other, and [we] began to cry. ... Thanks to them, I rubbed shoulders with him.”