With Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part Two set to hit UAE cinemas soon,
Chris Moss reads about Che the man, the myth and the Maoist soldier
The T-shirts, the disastrous campaigns in Congo and Bolivia, the early death, the hagiography – many things about Che Guevara are depressing. The left’s hysterical desire to keep him aloft as a symbol of pure rebellion is as misguided as the right’s need to portray him as a psychopathic upstart. We should never forget that Guevara was on board the Granma, the small boat that transported the 82 ill-equipped rebels who would change the course of Cuba’s history, but behind the godlike ‘Che’ was an ordinary bloke – which is what his nickname means, funnily enough – called Ernesto de la Serna Guevara who was as flawed as any of us.
To see the Argentine as a human being instead of an icon, we need to get inside his head. In concentrating on the relationship between Castro and Guevara, Simon Reid-Henry reveals many of the private human stories behind the public revolution. Most fascinating is the close-up view of the way the maximum leaders’ roles functioned: Castro as the conciliator, orator and, ultimately, master (or victim) of realpolitik; Guevara as wanderer, ideologue and hero of the factory shop floor. For a time their diplomatic tango won over Cubans and sympathetic socialists across the world and was also effective in confounding their many enemies. Eventually, though, personality differences would drive the pair apart and Reid-Henry gives us a blow-by-blow, analytical account of both the glory days and the grim endgame.
Spain Rodriguez’s book has no such ambitions. What could be more suited to a superhero than a cartoon? These moody monochrome strips give a mainly linear account of Che’s life from the middle class home in Rosario to his assassination in Bolivia, with very occasional location switches to Washington DC, Batista’s Havana and Mexico – where others were missing Che, reading about him or plotting to kill him. The pithy dialogue, action-packed drawings and sheer speed of Guevara’s busy life make this a pacy read, not to mention a great resource if you want to convert your kids to Marxism. Rodriguez makes no attempt to decode the Guevara myth or hide his own political leanings, but the medium here raises its own questions: why has Che become seemingly untouchable, the ultimate icon? Can a graphic homage reclaim any aspect of the real man and rescue him from commodification?
We turn in vain to the primary texts. Like The Motorcycle Diaries, Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War was written up long after the events it narrates. Guevara himself amended the text of the 1956-59 war diary on at least two occasions, and the prose exhibits rather too much composure to feel like a living, breathing journal. However, Guevara’s journey west across Cuba remains a fascinating episode in modern history and anyone who imagines it was a brief, banana republic affair should dwell on the hunger, heat, exhaustion and continuous skirmishes with Batista’s well-armed forces that characterised the campaign.
Che died two days after penning the October 7 1967 entry in his Bolivian Diary. His last written words were ‘Altitude = 2,000 metres’. Despite passing through Havana’s Che Guevara Studies Centre, this remains an authoritative rendering of the original facsimile, with the breathless, staccato quality of a military log. Guevara was either reckless or brave, or both, and his doomed insurgency in Bolivia involved a lot of walking and hanging around (‘uneventful’, ‘no other news’ are frequent entries) interspersed with occasional violent encounters with the enemy. A useful antidote to the T-shirts and iconography, this is the diary of a tired warrior destined to be defeated.
If you want to stir up a revolt yourself, you only need to buy one item: Che’s famous Guerrilla Warfare handbook. A bible for dozens of Maoist movements across Latin America, it should be obligatory reading for the modern sort of spineless guerrilla. This is revolution with cojones as well as waggish berets, and gives the lie to the notion that Guevara’s penchant for summarily executing his enemies meant he was bereft of military principles. True, he may have arrived at some of these techniques after much trial and error, but this detailed, wholly practical guidebook on everything from carrying equipment to propaganda to warehousing to target practice is the work of a soldier and schemer, not a gung-ho madman.
Che what you see
Fidel & Che – Simon Reid-Henry 4/5 Private stories of public revolution: an analytic account of both glory days and grim endgame. Scepter Dhs52.
Che: A Graphic Biography – Spain Rodriguez (ed. Paul Buhle) 5/5 Will help convert kids to Marxism. Verso Dhs65.
Reminiscences Of The Cuban Revolutionary War – Ernesto Che Guevara 3/5 Harper Perennial Rather too composed. Dhs59.
Guerrilla Warfare – Ernesto Che Guevara 5/5 Harper Perennial A bible for Maoist movements, with waggish berets. Dhs46.