1. Biography of saints.2. A worshipful or idealizing biography
Both these definitions fit Walter Salles's film The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) perfectly. I can only imagine how much Che Guevara would have hated this cheesy, saccharine movie that presents him as a Christian saint / eunuch.
Gael Garcia Bernal who plays the young Ernesto Guevara is an extremely talented actor. However, he is the last person in the world who should have been cast as Che. Garcia Bernal has a non-macho masculinity that helped him give the performance of his life as a gay teenager in Y tu mama tambien. The first word that comes to my mind whenever I see Garcia Bernal is "sensitive." He is simply unsuited to play a super macho Che Guevara who raved in his diaries about the joys of never washing himself and developing a strong, manly stench.
Of course, like any good saint, Ernesto Guevara of The Motorcycle Diaries resists temptations and performs miracles. He guards his virtue fiercely, even though his best friend, played by the amazing Rodrigo de la Serna, tries to undermine his companion's chastity by offering an example of free and exuberant sexuality. Ernesto also walks on water and cures lepers with his touch in a scene whose Biblical motifs are so strong as to render the whole film unpalatable. The efforts of the creators of this movie to present Ernesto Guevara as an unblemished, sensitive, romantic character end up producing a cardboard figure without a shred of humanity.
In many ways, Che Guevara is a terrifying figure. A middle-class guy with a good education, he could have practiced medicine and lived comfortably in Argentina. Instead, he chose to become a guerrillero. This man, who'd been trained to cure people, enjoyed participating in executions of those who were branded as counter-revolutionaries. He was fascinated with filth in the most literal sense. Even when his revolution won in Cuba, Che demonstrated that he was one of those revolutionaries who were only happy fighting and destroying. His attempts to inscribe himself into the peaceful process of post-revolutionary rebuilding was a failure.
Movies like The Motorcycle Diaries and books like the one I blogged about earlier today serve the goal of taming the image of the incomprehensible and terrifying revolutionary, transforming him from a figure that threatens the society of consumers into a convenient object of consumption.
News of the death last weekend at 88 of Alberto Granado will bring about the usual firestorm of comment from the extreme Right and Left, reasserting either Che Guevara’s unforgivably murderous nature or the wish to elevate him to some sort of secular celebrity sainthood. Neither response to Guevara is appropriate on the face of it, and especially in the context of the constant unchanging drum roll of both opinions, over and over since Guevara’s death 44 years ago. It’s astonishing that one man could engender so much repetitive cliché.
Granado was Ernesto Guevara’s companion on the now-famous motorcycle trip the two men made in 1951 through many South American countries. It’s often been said that this trip was the event that introduced Guevara to the numbing poverty of so many people in these countries and the extraordinarily cruel treatment meted out to them by the various governments. His having observed all this at close hand fueled his move to the Left and his eventual friendship and political alliance with Fidel Castro. The 1959 Cuban revolution was, for good or ill, the singular stunning result.
It is a surprise to discover how little is known of Che Guevara’s actual feelings, however. His diaries for the most reveal a doctrinaire Stalinist political stance, and not much else. Even when he was being pursued through the Bolivian countryside, hiding out from the Bolivian army, losing men every step of the way in a free fall to total defeat and his own destruction, the diary he kept of that time is so uninteresting, not to say boring, that we can conclude at least that this man was no writer. Most of the other writing about him is either academic history or political diatribe disguised as history and, therefore, just as boring.
But Guevara made personal choices that must have hurt him terribly, whether he realized it or not. He left his five children for The Revolution. One heart-rending story about his relationship with his family is that of his visit one day with one of his little daughters in a Cuban pre-school, while having to remain so disguised that even she could not recognize him at all. His heart simply broke. On other occasions, he murdered people. He authorized the deaths of many more. He embarked upon a farcical adventure in Bolivia with little backing and no support from the Bolivians themselves. He was abandoned out there by Fidel and left to rot. Guevara’s writing in general and all the political stuff that has come out since his death contains very little of how he must have felt in his soul about all this.
Maybe this is the territory that would be better suited by good fiction about Che Guevara. A major stage for discussions of the human heart, fiction may be the one place where we can get the truth about this strange, driven, violent man.
(Terence Clarke’s novel A Kiss For Señor Guevara was published last year.)
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