That photograph in the history book didn’t look into my eye, but I felt something. The face had an appeal about it, I remembered seeing the face somewhere else, but it was difficult for me to recall. So I read what was printed along with – it said, I think, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or simply Che Guevara. Che, because in Latin America, Argentines are addressed as such. It was about two decades ago (I already feel old writing ‘two decades ago’). Today a later edition of the same book (I believe) doesn’t have that picture. Another victim of the saffronisation or the following detoxification of school texts?
The film based on his iconic travel diary – The Motorcycle Diaries – had been airing for quite some time on one of the movie channels, but I avoided watching it. I wanted to read the book first. Had somehow managed to not read that all these years and recently when I was bestowed with the responsibility of getting a gift for a colleague (who also happens to be a childhood friend), I got that book for him and rushed him to have his obligatory first-read and snatched it away. The long journey that I undertake everyday to work provided the non-so-ideal setting to read through the translated sentences that Ernesto wrote years before he became The Che.
I didn’t think that I’d be able to finish off reading the slim volume (176 pages) as I have a modest collection of half-read books lining my shelves. But then it was Che, he went beyond my expectations (kudos to the translation by Alexandra Keeble). I boosted my ego comparing my thoughts with the 23-year-old Ernesto’s. His and his friend Alberto Granado’s escapades across South America is full with realistic humour and an understanding of the things happening at that time. The dislike for imperialism and the USA, the concern for the exploited and a zeal to live life in fun.
Occassionally politically incorrect (but always witty), shows a man of flesh and blood, not another iconic avatar created by panegyric biographers. Not only did I learn about the man whose image would inspire radical youth around the world and also provide a fashionable emblem (thanks to Alberto Korda) to clueless youngsters, I knew more and refreshed the little that I knew about Latin America, its culture, people, history and conflicts.
I also discovered a few other truths. For instance mighty names do not necessarily match the performance as La Poderosa II (The Mighty One), a Norton 500 motorcycle that they (Che and Alberto) set out to travel around in proved. The bike gave away midway through the arduous journey, somewhat discrediting the title of the book. Mate is not just another synonym for friend; it is also the Argentine national drink (a tea-like beverage made from the herb mate). Another is a quote attributed to Oscar Galvez (a champion Argentine rally driver), “When a piece of wire can replace a screw, give me the wire, it’s safer.” And you also do not shoot anything which growls and has glowing eyes in a puma infested area; it just might be your hosts’ pet dog.
Travelling initially on the motorbike, occasionally on foot, in trucks, trains, vans, a ship, a raft, I went on a wonderful journey across an unknown world with an asthmatic biker who is also a photographer, writer, orator, doctor, leader, fighter… The writing style is not revolutionary, it is humane, more like the man himself.
A suggestion: If you intend to read the book for the first time, read the introduction by Cintio Viter only after you’ve finished with whatever Che wrote. Knowing some things beforehand takes the fun away from the read.
Photo 1 Scanned cover of the book, The Motorcycle Diaries
Photo 2 store.che-lives.com
Photo 3 Scanned from the book. Copyright Che Guevara Studies Centre, Havana