Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

Jon Lee Anderson
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
Grove Press

"I'M STILL THE loner that I used to be," wrote Ernesto "Che" Guevara to his mother in 1959, his motorcycle trips a distant memory and the Cuban revolution he helped create still in flux. "I feel an almost fatalistic sense of my mission which strips me of all fear." The individualist wanderer who found salvation in guerrilla warfare (and thought the world could do the same) is one of the many Che's to emerge from Jon Lee Anderson's intimate, epic biography of the revolutionary poster boy.

Che: the Argentine anti-imperialist who came to envision a united Latin America--mestizo, Indian, creole--extricating itself from the empire in the North. Che: the bohemian stud, with his venomous wit and raggedy clothes, bedding and charming his way across the Americas. Che: the emerging socialist who sought to cleanly destroy his "I" in the "we" of the people, yet often felt isolated from and disappointed by the same. Che: the "heroic guerrilla," a life-long asthmatic who teamed with the bombastic Fidel Castro to fight like a machine in the thick climate of southern Cuba--and win. Che: the Robespierre administrator of "revolutionary justice" in Cuba, the avenging angel whose standards of Gramscian discipline chafed all those around him. Che: the guerrilla-4-life who left his wife, family, and rank in Cuba to fight and face defeat in the Congo, only to end up a handless skeleton, recently unearthed in Bolivia.

Reconciling these many faces is what Anderson's ambitious book is about: How did Ernesto Guevara, a well-born Argentine doctor--basically a white guy--become "Che" (a street greeting that roughly translates to "Yo!") and help lead a successful black and Indian guerrilla assault on Cuba, the whorehouse of the Caribbean? Anderson covers all the bases (he spent five years researching and interviewing people in Cuba and elsewhere), and he spins a good yarn, finding his pace during the Cuban revolution and running from there. He must be a gifted finagler: The author doesn't seem to share Che's politics (he views the young Guevara's warning of North-South conflagration as "doomsaying," downplays the United States' terror war on Cuba, and highlights Che's naïveté about Khrushchev), yet he gets inside dirt from Che's staunchest allies and loved ones.

The biggest pitfall in writing Che's life isn't authorial bias, but the way the story inevitably becomes a kind of "one great man" history, with bit characters--"the people"--swept into the slipstream. Even so, Che made things happen, and his myth rests on his unique faith in the ability of people to make things happen themselves. Don't wait around "until all the conditions for making revolution exist," Che told potential Zapatistas in his book Guerrilla Warfare, "the insurrection can create them." As the great El Vez sings, "Che it loud."

 
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