A.N. Wilson, biography, Che Guevara, Che Guevara t-shirts, Che: A Revolutionary Life, Communism, Fidel Castro, history, Jon Lee Anderson, Mao-Zedong, Monty Python, Nikita Khrushchev, Political Discourse, Politics, Raul Castro, The Motorcycle Diaries, Tolstoy
I had plans for my Christmas break. I had Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris, Hank Williams By Colin Escott, and a stack of books to review, hopefully around one or two a day so that by the time the Spring semester started back up I would have at least six or seven, at least, new essays on the blog. I cannot properly explain then why I began Jon Lee Anderson’s CHE: A Revolutionary Life. Okay I can explain it, because I’m getting to an obnoxious point in my existence where I’m understanding my motivations with more clarity than I did ten years ago when hormones were in control, but I’m still working on managing the language accordingly. It’s because as long as I’ve known about Che Guevara I’ve been told only that the man was a homicidal lunatic who beat people to death with baseball bats in the name of Communism while torturing puppies for fun. As I found out, only the latter possesses any kind of merit, however he didn’t torture the puppy in question but I’ll get to that in a bit.
It may just be because I live in Texas, and the word Communism summons emotions that have to be seen to be believed, I think I saw one man arch his back and crow before spinning a circle while reciting “Yankee Doodle Dandee,” and then of course there’s the charming assault of that word should anyone mention President Obama. The specter of Communism is a local menace the way people describe it, an abstract malevolent economic-political philosophy manifested into a physical form that steals into people’s home stealing children and brainwashing them into not wanting cars for their sixteenth birthday or popcorn when they go to see a movie. Che Guevara, much like Joseph Stalin, Lenin, Karl Marx, and Mao Zedong have become cartoon characters wrapped up in folklore and myth and being the man I am, the kind of man who looks at myth and wants to dig to the founding nugget of original inspiration, I leapt at the chance to read Anderson’s biography.
As I said, I had plans for the Christmas break, however at the start of the semester I popped into a professor’s office to say hi. I hadn’t actually taken any classes he taught, but my little sister during the previous semester had taken a Cold War film history course he had instructed, not to mention the fact that he had married one of my friends and so I thought I would say hi. A terrible habit of mine is becoming entranced by other people’s libraries, many of my professors are used to this habit of mine and shake their heads at me, however he allowed me to look over the books, and there on the top shelf in almost complete black binding with bold yellow letters was CHE. I asked about it, still in my book stupor and he looked over at it and he offered to let me borrow it. I declined citing the fact I had enough books to read, which was the damn bloody truth, and so I left it on the shelf. The book haunted me however for his office was only a few doors down from my place of work and I enjoy talking to him and his wife so of course CHE was always on my mind. I began to be regularly assaulted by dreams, one instance being that I was alone in a performance hall and there was a Che Guevara chorus girl line while Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” played…okay that didn’t actually happen, but you get the idea.
I wanted to read the book because I wanted to know if Che was the heartless bastard my father and many people had painted him, and so when the semester ended, and my December break reading pile was up to my neck I finally succumbed and plucked the book off the shelf much to the damn merriment of my professor friend who’d watched my internal struggle over the course of four months. Christmas break came and I began a 750 page biography about a Communist guerilla leader.
Was Che Guevara a monster who beat people to death baseball bats for fun? No. He wasn’t. Che Guevara was an asshole, a man who rigidly kept to near impossible ideals at the expense of his family and own personal well-being. In one passage Anderson looks at Che alongside the man who would come to give Che the destiny he had always hoped for:
Despite their many differences, Ernesto and Fidel shared some traits. Both were favored boys from large families and extremely spoiled; careless about their appearance; sexually voracious, but men to whom relationships came in second to their personal goals. Both were imbued with Latin machismo: believers in the innate weakness of women, contemptuous of homosexuals, and admirers of brave men of action. Both were possessed of an iron will and imbued with a larger-than-life sense of purpose. And finally, both wanted to carry out revolutions. By the time they met, each had already tried to play direct roles in historic events of their time, only to be thwarted, and they identified a common nemesis—The United States (178).
In some ways Anderson’s book is also a biography of Fidel Castro because these two men are shown to be in constant contact once they recognize their mutual desires and ambitions, and, indeed, there are lengthy passages throughout the text in which Che does not even make an appearance. The reason for this is because during Che’s life the man was always looking for something, a cause in which to pour his energies and that would eventually become the Cuban revolution.
Before that time however Che’s story is wondrously familiar to anyone who has been a passionate young man. I admit that I was somewhat bored during the early passage of the book, but that is not to suggest that Anderson is weak as an author for this. Anything but. Anderson’s biography should be read by any and all biographers mounting to the challenge of tackling a single life in book form. The only biography I have read that matches the level of detail, research, and engaging prose is A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy. Anderson breathes a real life into the character of Ernesto Guevara, Che’s real name, by making him someone real rather than polluting the pages with bias. Reading this book I became more aware of Ernesto than Che, though that would steadily grow into the person he became, and I began to recognize a humanity that was familiar. For example, Anderson explains that Ernesto from a young age suffered terrible asthma:
In the end, the Guevara’s realized that there was no rigid pattern to Ernesto’s asthma. The most they could do was to find ways to contain it. […] Often unable even to walk, and confined to bed for days at a time Ernesto spent long hours reading books or learning to play chess with his father. These pursuits also remained with him for life, and he credited his periods of childhood quarantine with helping to bring about his love of reading. (17-8).
The reader may be impressed at this fact, or not they could be a cynic (what happened to your sense of wonder Celia?) but imagine my own surprise that the boogeyman of communism was an asthmatic. Anderson is able to demonstrate this weakness throughout Ernesto’s lifetime describing attacks that would hit the man during public speeches, battles, and small day to day operations. Ernesto would grow up feeling weak for this ailment which in turn would create a feeling of inferiority that he tried to stamp out by being more reckless and courageous than other boys. Ernesto’s childhood also reveals him to be the favorite son and throughout the rest of his life his family would admire and look up to him. Ernesto like many young men then, began to recognize a desire for destiny; he looked for the chance to make his life more than what it could be in his homeland of Argentina. When he was a young man he left on a trip throughout South and Central America, a period of time which has been chronicled in the film The Motocycle Diaries, with his friend Alberto Granada and Anderson explains the trip both in intricate detail before offering the final impression of the trip: to Guevara:
Like the medical researcher he was on his way to becoming, Ernesto immediately searched for a cause when he saw a symptom. And, having found what he thought was the cause, he searched for its antidote. Thus, in Ernesto’s mind, the dying old lady in Valparaiso and the persecuted miner couple on the road to Chuqui had become “living examples of the proletariat in the whole world,” who lived in misery because of an unjust social order, and whose lives would not improve until future enlightened government changed the states of things. Symptoms and cause were wrapped up in one ugly package. Standing behind the local regimes holding sway and perpetuating injustice were the Americans and their overwhelming economic power. Ernesto’s antidote in the case of Chile was to “get the uncomfortable American Friend off its back,” but he warned in the same breath of the dangers and difficulties of expropriation. Ernesto didn’t have the cure for all these ills, but he was searching. Perhaps the “red flame dazzling the world” was the answer, but he wasn’t yet sure. (82).
In case the reader doesn’t comprehend the “red flame” would the specter of communism that was infecting the Continent of South America slowly but surely. Looking at this passage it becomes difficult to entirely classify Ernesto as a godless communist bent on overthrowing the democracy of the United States so he can murder puppies in front of children(I know, I know, the puppy thing, later I promise). In fact he becomes, dear reader, a recognizable human being. It may just be because I was a young man myself, but when I was younger I also hoped that my life would possess some grand destiny, that it would be up to me to change the world for the better in some form or fashion, and while I can’t speak for every former teenage boy I do believe it is part of the blueprint many men fall into. When we’re young we’re going through so much darkness, puberty is a bitch, and we’re able to identify problems easier than realistic solutions, add to the fact that we have an ego that could fill the vacuous space in the valleys of this globe and so the answer to all the world’s problems becomes us. We’ll find the answers to the problems of the world and overcome them, just as we struggle to overcome our own fears and insecurities. Che is not a man in this passage, but a boy hoping to catch his destiny, a man I used to be.
Well allright Che Guevara didn’t start out as a bloodthirsty lunatic, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t become that later on.
My response dear reader is to agree and disagree. Che would eventually become Che (a nickname which I didn’t understand until halfway through the book when I realized it’s a term people in Latin America use to call someone from Argentina) the killer of men, but rather than the Al Capone baseball bat many people would come to create around him the reality is far less graphic though still barbaric. Anderson describes the “purges” in Cuba:
Over the next several months, several hundred people were officially tried and executed by firing squads across Cuba. Most were sentenced in conditions like those described by Borrego: above board, if summary affairs, with defensive lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public. On a lesser scale, there were also a number of arbitrary executions. The most notorious incident occurred when, soon after occupying Santiago, Raul Castro directed a mass execution of over 70 captured soldiers by bulldozing a trench, standing the condemned men in front of it, and mowing them down with machine guns. The action Crystallized Raul’s reputation for ruthlessness and a proneness to violence, one that the years since have not mitigated. (387-8).
The reader may want to hop up and down and point their fingers to the hipsters wearing Che on their t-shirt and scream “See! See!,” but before they do they should continue reading to the next page:
Che was undeterred and pushed on. He warned his judges to be scrupulous about weigh in evidence in each case so as not to give the revolution’s enemies any additional ammunition, but the trials had to continue if Cuba’s revolution was to be secure. He never tired of telling his Cuban comrades in Guatemala Arbenz had fallen because he had not purged his armed forces of disloyal elements, a mistake that permitted the CIA to penetrate and overthrow his government. Cuba could not afford to repeat it. (389).
This does not absolve Guevara of any of his sins, and my effort is not to pardon the man for the deaths of people he was responsible for. My concern is that the folklore butcher is overshadowing the real political figure. Calling Che a bloodthirsty monster only pollutes the discourse, calling him an asshole and a murderer is far more accurate.
The biography culminates halfway through to the acquiring of Cuba and one gets the sense that everything in Che’s life was building up to that moment. Looking then at the second passage it becomes clear how the image of Che as the heartless, Communist boogeyman began to form. From this point on the CIA would recognize his significance in the Communist party, for not long after Cuba began to take shape he went on a world tour meeting Nikita Khrushchev (Premiere of the Soviet Union) and Mao Zedong (Chairman of the Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China) and working alongside both men to establish the Soviet Ties that would come to define Cuba for the next half of the Twenty-first century. Anderson notes that these visits, alongside Che’s outspoken criticism of American republicanism helped build his reputation in America:
For the Americans, an ideologically committed man so close to Fidel and one who inspired such an unusual degree of loyalty among his soldiers was a dangerous foe indeed. And, as Havanna embassy cables show, they knew it, very early in 1959. (412).
When tackling a review of a book that’s over 750 pages there’s an impulse to include everything. Every quote you have marked seems important, for if the reader doesn’t receive the exact right quote in the exact right place then they may never pick up the book for themselves and read it. They’ll never understand that the book you read was without of doubt one of the greatest books, not only ever written, but also one of the greatest you yourself will read. Anderson’s book is not an Arnold Swartzenager movie(action flick, I don’t know why I didn’t just say that, it’s a thick book), but there are few books that dig into a subject so completely that the reader is left feeling that they have genuinely met and understood another human being so deeply. Anderson’s book is a labor and the amount of research that went into it is stunning in its complexity and depth. The book was a labor so intense that after Che Guevara was finally killed in his foiled swan song guerilla campaign in Bolivia, Anderson was able to lead historians and researchers to the exact place the man was buried and find the body, identifiable as it was the only skeleton in the area missing hands.
Looking at the life of Che I understand how the folklore legends, both the saintly and baseball batty, got started. Che was a man of vision and principle to the very end. One only need look at his last words:
There are different versions, but according to legend, Che’s last words, when Terran came through the door to shoot him were: “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.” Terran hesitated, then pointed his semiautomatic rifle and pulled the trigger, hitting Che in the arms and legs. Then, as Che writhed on the ground, apparently biting one of his wrists in an effort to avoid crying out, Terran fired another burst.. The fatal bullet entered Che’s thorax, filling his lungs with blood.
On October 9, 1967, at the age of thirty-nine, Che Guevara was dead. (739).
Upon reflection Che Guevara has not impacted my own life much, but certainly the lives of millions. He has defied death living on as the boogeyman Communist or else the ideal bearded handsome man that hipsters put on their t-shirt, which for the record is a stupid fucking thing to do. The conflict with Ernesto “Che” Guevara is that beneath the surface cartoon most people would recognize is a complex human being made more so by the book CHE: A Revolutionary Life. Even if the reader believes Communism to be stupid (which never fear I also believe that) they should still take the time to read this book only to discover their opinion is further validated. Anderson demonstrates the glory that was the Cuban revolution and how, over time, that vision faded to impotence and failed miserably. Che’s life is a story of a man chasing a dream that ultimately doesn’t work, and his final moments only further clarify that reality.
As long as people continue to tell folk-legends of the man however the split personality will linger on, while the far more interesting story will exist in Anderson’s book.
I promised to explain the puppy thing. I should forewarn the reader that it’s depressing and graphic and involves murder of a puppy so if you think you can’t take it just close the article or google search pictures of cute puppies. Here it is:
As the soldiers advanced up the Mar Verde valley, Che and his men stuck to the flanking forested hills, trying to catch up with them without being seen. They tried to speed up their pace but discovered that their new mascot, a puppy, had stubbornly trailed them. Che ordered the fighter who was looking after the puppy, a man named Felix, to make it go back, but the little dog continued trotting loyally behind him. They reached an arroyo where they rested, and the puppy inexplicably began howling; the men tried to hush it with comforting words, but the little dog didn’t stop. Che ordered it killed. “Felix looked at me with eyes that said nothing,” Che wrote later. “Very slowly he took out a rope, wrapped it around the animal’s neck, and began to tighten it. The cute little movements of the dog’s tail suddenly became convulsive, before gradually dying out, accompanied by a steady moan that escaped from its throat, despite the firm grasp. I don’t know how lon it took for the end to come, but to all of us it seemed like forever. With one last nervous twitch, the puppy stopped moving. There it lay, sprawled out, it’s little head spread over the twigs.”
The band of men moved on without speaking. (288)
Well like I said Guevara was an asshole and this is a fucked up moment, but remember the action was taken out of concern for military strategy, not because he had a dead puppy fetish. That’s not better, it’s just…what it is.
Fuck Che Guevara t-shirts. Seriously. You think you’re cool for wearing this dude’s face on your chest? Do you even know what he did during his life? Why doesn’t anybody wear Louis Pasteur, or Charles Darwin? Do you know what they did for humanity? Seriously dude, Margaret is NOT interested in you. You need to get over her because she drives a Toyota Camry and vapes. VAPES. Seriously dude. Get back to your life, because right now, you are a boob.
**Writer’s Final Note**
There are plenty of Youtube videos of Guevara doing interviews or speeches, but I thought I would share this one so the reader could begin learning more about the man if they were so inclined, I know the puppy thing was harsh, but trust far worse things have happened.