On the road with Che

Issue 

The Motorcycle Diaries: a Journey Around South America

By Ernesto Che Guevara

Fourth Estate

$20.95

REVIEW BY STEVEN KATSINERIS

The Motorcycle Diaries is the incredible story of a remarkable
road journey, written in the words of a 23-year-old medical student who
would become known as Che. This book bought back a lot of memories for
me.

When I was 16, I learned of Ernesto Che Guevara when I read about his
death in 1967. He was wounded and captured in Bolivia by US special forces
and Bolivian soldiers. He was later executed and buried in a secret grave.

I was captivated. Over the next few months I poured over the pages of
his books, including the Bolivian Diary (it was one of Che's habits
to jot down most of the day's events in a personal diary) and Reminiscences
of the Cuban Revolutionary War
.

Che thought like I did and his hatred of injustice and inequality, and
his ideas about how to overcome it rang true to me. Over the years, I read
everything I could find written by or about Che Guevara. Che became my
hero and I aspired to be like him.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina.
The nickname, “Che” came later and stuck to him. Che is commonly used in
Argentina to mean “pal” or “mate” and Argentinians are often nicknamed
Che in other Spanish-speaking countries. Guevara's family, from the upper
middle class, shared radical ideas.

@BODY TEXT SPA = In 1948, Ernesto entered the University of Buenos Aires
to study medicine. He had a keen interest in literature, travel and, despite
suffering bouts of severe asthma, enjoyed sport, especially soccer and
rugby union. In 1950, Guevara made a 7000-kilometre trip around northern
Argentina on a moped.

In 1951, while still a medical student, Guevara undertook a 10-month-long
journey around South America on a Norton 500cc motorcycle called “Ala Poderosa”
(the powerful one). He travelled with an older radical doctor friend, Alberto
Granado, who specialised in leprology. This is the trip immortalised in
The Motorcycle Diaries.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a vivid account of an adventure of
a lifetime and is full of drama and comedy. Guevara and his friend left
university and a life of privilege for the road. While there are fights,
sexual encounters and drunken parties, there are also very moving illustrations
of Che's idealism and his solidarity with the oppressed.

The journey brought them personally face to face with the poverty and
inequality in South America. During their travels, the two friends worked
with people suffering leprosy and learned of their terrible living conditions.
The Motorcycle Diaries is a fascinating historical read which provides
an insight into Guevara's radicalisation.

It is a sort of Latin version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
Che writes in a very natural, free flowing and descriptive style that suits
well a travel narrative. His poetic descriptions of the mystery and beauty
of a wild and mountainous continent are wonderful.

The book's title is a little misleading because the motorcycle conked
out part-way through the journey. However, it becomes more interesting
as Guevara and Granado hitchhike on market-bound trucks, travel by narrow-gauge
railway, stowaway on freighters, share a cargo plane with horses and travel
down a river on a homemade raft. With little money, the two are reliant
on others for food, shelter and transport and have to use their wits to
get rides and survive.

Che is greatly impressed by the people he meets and praises the hospitality
of the common people. He describes incidents like when a Chilean communist
sulphur miner says, “Come, comrades, come and eat with us. I'm a vagrant
too”.

The book reveals the young Che embracing the people, culture and ideals
of pan-Americanism. He acknowledges in the book that “the person who wrote
these notes... me, is no longer me, at least I'm not the me I was”.

My favourite section of the book is titled “As An Afterthought”. Guevara
has a mystically surreal “revelation”, in which an old man speaks to him
about revolution and sacrifice and foretells Che's destiny of struggle
and death. Afterwards, Che writes “I now knew that when the great spirit
cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people”.

I found this deeply moving and remembered reading that, as Che waited
to be executed, a soldier seeing him deep in thought, mockingly said, “Are
you thinking about your immortality”. Che answered, “No I'm thinking about
the immortality of the revolution”.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a grand and lively tale of discovery,
wit, determination and curiosity, that lets the reader into the thoughts
and feelings of the young Che, before he was a socialist and a political
figure who would change history. This book tells a very human story and
proper understanding of Ernesto Che Guevara is truly incomplete without
reading it.

Reading this book was an inspiring and delightful experience. It resonates
with the heart and spirit of an exceptionally remarkable human being.

“If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you're a comrade
of mine” — Ernesto Che Guevara, 1928-1967.

From Green Left Weekly, November 6, 2002.

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