Monday, August 22, 2011

The Motorcycle Diaries - Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Che Guevara

[Translated from the Spanish]
Rating: 3 ½ Stars
Before he became one of the most charismatic political icons of the last century, ‘Che’ was known simply as Ernesto Guevara (1928-1966). He is even now a polarizing figure. To some, he’s a true hero - the intellectual-warrior who saw revolutionary uprising as the only way to empower the downtrodden masses of Latin America. To others, who remember him for his Marxist ideology and his role in the Cuban Revolution, he was a dangerous incendiary.
On the cusp of completing medical school, Guevara decides to take a nine-month hiatus traversing South America. Accompanied by his friend Alberto Granado, on Granado’s bike optimistically called ‘La Poderosa II’ (The Mighty One), the two set off from their native Argentina, and in their travels cross Chile, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and the U.S. before Guevara returns home. ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ is an account of those vagabond months.
Despite its impressive name La Poderosa was none too reliable. It was a tough, capricious beast of a machine with the spirit of a rodeo bronco. Guevara and Granado seem to spend as much time flying off the bike than staying on it. The pair meet with many comical mishaps, and come up with some conmen’s tricks to wheedle food and drink on the way. In return for meals, transport and shelter, they often take part-time jobs working at barbecues, doing odd jobs on ships (that they had boarded as stowaways), participate in football matches, or simply rely on the hospitality of strangers. South America seems a continent that, by and large, is very kindly disposed to unexpected guests. However, there are many occasions where one gets the idea that their hosts were glad to see the backs of the two young men.
Guevara writes with verve, imagination, and an exuberant humor. At times there is also a self-conscious grandiloquence that reveals itself in the flourish of certain phrases, more evident in the beginning and end of the book. For the most part, he comes across not as your average slacker idling some time away from school. Rather, there is a telling intensity and purpose in his observations on regional politics, the living conditions of the working poor, and the dismal medical resources available vis-à-vis the medical needs. A clear intelligence pervades the narrative, a deep interest in the people, history and economy of the places he visits. The glimpse that we get of Guevara at that point in his life is not yet that of a militant revolutionary, rather a nascent crusader who sees urgent need for social reform in his beloved South America.
There is a noticeable hint of criticism in his mention of the United States. Caught in the stranglehold of Cold War paranoia, the U.S. grew increasingly alarmed at the idea of Communism/Socialism thriving in its backyard. In its self-proclaimed role of defender of the free world, it championed democracy everywhere. If none were available, it settled for the next best thing – any government friendly to American interests, no matter how despotic to its own people. Many of South America’s dictatorial regimes were propped up with support from the U.S. government. Guevara’s eventual assassination in Bolivia in 1966, where he had joined in support of Bolivian guerrilla fighters was engineered in Washington D.C.  No doubt the world has become a safer place since then.
It has taken the U.S several decades to learn that global poverty and social unrest can spread like ripples from distant lands before crashing like a tsunami on its own shores. At least, one would hope that the lesson has been learned. Guevara probably was representative of a generation of impatient young men who hoped to change the world for the better with guns. If he had lived longer, perhaps he could have seen that all the populist rebels who stormed in, brandishing weapons and promises of a brighter future outstayed their welcome, clinging to the reins of power even as rigor mortis set in. The more things change the more they remain the same. Perhaps he was aware of it and made his choice anyway, and that is why he remains an emblem of indefatigable, incorruptible youth.

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