-- Mao Tse-Tung, 1957
Biographies are a bitch. The best, like Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star, can easily surpass its fictional equal: The magic combination of an interesting life as retold by a gifted stylist transcending even the powers of imagination to create something which looks, feels, and tastes like art -- art as acted out in flesh and blood as opposed to the vastness of introspection.
The flipside of this fine situation is turned out with sickening regularity by the league of hacks who seem to produce exclusively for gift shop franchises throughout this great land of ours. However, even the worst of this stuff (Albert Goldman's august body of work, for example), garbage slick with the cold perspiration of envy, works when the author manages to create a life for his or her creation, endowing it with a personality of its own.
Unfortunately, in biography, personality is polar. The great middle, the majority of biographies published today, seems as faceless and devoid of personality as wax replicas of the personalities they purport to portray. Worse yet are those laying thick veneers of "perspective" over their vacuousness, this in quest of the oxymoronic "objective myth."
If someone were to come along and hand me a wad of currency with the codicil I write a biography, any biography, I'd happily blow a good portion of said advance hiring Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (Grove/Atlantic, $35 hard), as my chief researcher. The man really is a phenomenal talent when it comes to compiling data -- a goddamn prairie dog of research, this character. No problem with sharing credit, either. There's little doubt that throwing open one's records, home, and memories to Anderson's sincerity and sense of purpose reaps payoffs way beyond protocol or politesse. Nor do Anderson's journalistic skills pale in the face of these "other" talents; his pedigree in regard to covering Latin American political conflicts is impeccable. But there's a problem, an insurmountable barrier to complete enjoyment of Anderson's ouevre. The author seems incapable of compelling narrative. 754 pages of actual explication and you can count the instances of poetry on a hand. And it seems a shame -- the potential for pure Shakespearean grandeur just oozes from Cuban Revolutionary mercenary-hero Che Guevara's short, fiery life.
The eldest child of ruined Argentinian aristocrats-turned-Bohemian-roustabouts Celia de la Serna and Ernesto Guevara Lynch, Ernesto Jr. "contracts" asthma at age two. This condition colors the rest of his life, plaguing him enough to affect, and mold, his world view. It's been said the key to a man's character is that which he overcomes. Guevara never beats asthma, though it can be argued he dies trying.
The contempt for one's fellows the imposition and acceptance of extreme discipline engenders, in concert with his loose, unusual upbringing coalesce in the stubborn, highly adventurous Taurean (Anderson takes special care in the use of this astrological note, opening his book with it), marking the boy early on. Of pure Spanish and Irish (read: Celtic) extraction, Guevara quickly mirrors his bombastic but basically ineffectual father and "artistic," self-deceptive mother Celia -- a baroque mater-familias engaged in endless games of solitaire surrounded by a legion of sycophants and hangers-on her eldest son contemptuously dismisses as "probably lesbians."
Inclusion in highly Euro-centric Argentinian coastal society is inevitable, if only for his breeding, and Guevara functions on its fringes -- a Puckish, nonconforming monkey more closely resembling the strangely guileless Indians of the interior than his compatriots. But Ernesto Jr. hardly lacks guile. His unexpected, biting denouncements, all delivered with a grin plastered across his face, betray his European roots. The Peronist nationalism of Argentina during Guevara's youth undoubtedly influenced his ethnic identity, as did his choice of careers -- medicine, the choice of many who endure early physical travails.
But his explorations, first into the Argentinian interior, and later into Western South and Central America, awaken Guevara to the voices of his soul, and his destiny as a revolutionary. The pathos inspired by firsthand contact with the subjugated natives of the continent and the seething resentment bred by realization of the actual puppeteer of the entire scenario -- the United States of America -- work in the exceptionally well-read youth like compounds dissolved to form a new alloy infinitely stronger than its component parts. His extensive diaries, begun at age 22, boil over with rage, sarcasm, and indignation in reference to "gringos." By the time Guevara, fresh from fleeing North American interdiction in then left-leaning Guatemala, met future boss Fidel Castro Ruiz in Mexico in 1962, the die is cast. Ernesto Guevara Jr. has, to paraphrase author Anderson, become Che.
If one senses even a hint of bias in Anderson's exhaustive biography of Dr. Guevara, it seems only a consequence of having inhabited the same environs, both temporal and otherwise. Still, I was left wondering if the author had actually assimilated the gathered material and, if so, why his marked reluctance to draw revelations from said data. Each cautious hypothesis, phrase, and word seems calculated to offend no one (on the Left, at any rate).
On a personal level, I approached the book with all the cultural obeisance of my station in society, my preconceptions primed to override most any negative input. Anderson's writing style -- reverential to the point of canonization -- facilitates this. It's the facts of Che's life, however, that KO the whole thing. By the middle of this exceptionally long tome I realized I might have liked Che Guevara... at a distance. Intimacy would have inevitably given birth to an Aquarian counter-contempt, that wonderful insolence that guarantees Aquarians a berth in Heaven, as well as a speedy trip there via the hit lists of cold-eyed, situationally inhumane ideologues the like of "Dr." Guevara.
Granted, this is the function of good biography -- the Dragnet "Just the facts, ma'am" Approach: Reader, draw your own conclusions. Nonetheless, this seldom seems to be Anderson's intent. His reverence stains everything. Worse, Anderson pushes his own literary envelope in his efforts to further mythologize his subject. Dividing his book into three sections -- "Unquiet Youth," "Becoming Che," and "Making the New Man" -- the writer hands us some nugget of portentousness as an opening to each that near-cheapens the endeavor from the outset. The middle section, "Becoming Che," opens with Guevara confronted with a major life decision during Fidel and company's disastrous "invasion" of Cuba -- save the bullets, or the medical kit. Grabbing the former, and basically renouncing any pretense of fidelity to his Hippocratic Oath, Che neatly "becomes" himself and Anderson is free to backtrack, start over and begin his fact-piling anew. "Big Moment" experiences like these feel like nudges in a crowd at a ball game -- quick, anonymous, and usually leaving you with mustard stains on your shirt, stigmata of your encounter with another creature of God.
More problems surface when one consults source material other than Anderson's. One example would be the author's handling of the "Matthew's Letters." In February of 1957 senior New York Times editor Herbert Matthews was granted a clandestine interview with Fidel at his 26th of July liberation forces camp in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains. Che Guevara had, by this time, established himself as invaluable to Castro. It was, however, a low point for the rebels, Fidel himself reported dead by the Batista regime in Havana. The resultant, gushing articles appeared both in the U.S. and Cuba itself. Inflamed, middle class Cuban youth began to filter into the hills or engage in hometown sabotage/subversion while, to the north, the gringo power base, lulled by Castro's reminder "You can be sure that we have no animosity towards the United States... we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to dictatorship," sat back and let puppet Batista stew in his own juice. Then, it was just a matter of time.
Anderson, while admitting trickery in reference to both troop size and political objectives on the part of the 26th of July movement, downplays the significance of Matthews' articles. Robert J. Asprey, author of the two-volume War in the Shadows: The Guerilla in History, waxes near-apoplectic over them. Asprey, also responsible for such humanist tracts as Semper Fidelis, thoroughly castigates Matthews in particular and coverage journalists of the period in general for their romantic irresponsibility, arguing if they'd been reigned in from the start, the outcome of the Cuban Revolution might have differed dramatically. Naturally, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Whereas Asprey can be infuriatingly "militaristic" in his assessments, the leverage (and levity) the author allows himself pragmatically leaves room for him to at least express himself. Anderson, on the other hand, seems mired in ideology, rather than the romance of that ideology. Reading his work is like hanging out with Green/Health Nazis: the general schematic -- right down to passing the bong -- laden with a Catholic sense of dogma; political correctness as interpreted by Savonarola.
One aspect of Asprey's journalistic criticism rings true, though abstractly. The United States has always perceived Latin America as a kind of private fiefdom, and behaved accordingly. It takes something like a popular revolution, rather an individual, preferably photogenic, symbol of that rebellion, someone like a Che Guevara, to light a fire under America's collective conscience. Guevara with his knowing squints and air of jaunty, sardonic mystery seems tailor-made for such mass guilt consumption -- a swarthy but handsome Christ figure in army fatigues casting the money-changers out of the temple. Already shamelessly exploited in this fashion in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Evita, the myth of Che bears more than a little resemblance to something cooked up in a brainstorming session on Madison Avenue.
The problem with this scenario was that Guevara hated the United States. His presence during the United Fruit/Eisenhower Administration's overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala's left-leaning president, only underlines the basic drawback of American efforts to eradicate communism -- the methods employed served to do no more than make ardent communists of the survivors. Guevara, already ill-disposed towards gringos, reacted in the usual manner.
Early in his intellectual development, Che drew the Rio Grande as a line of demarcation between the avaricious, blue-eyed devils to the north and the seething mass of humanity beneath, a line to be crossed arbitrarily by the proletariat once the great Pan-American Revolution had begun. One can only surmise how the Anglo power structure would handle this concept in someplace like Del Rio -- but what the hell, it's supposed to be an upsetting image. And in Che Guevara, they had something to be upset about; a Latin American socialist Jesus -- Savior as Satan -- a symbol of indignation and righteous retribution, the singular physical embodiment of the mestizo hordes pouring across the muddy river on pontoon boats once the bridges had been blown. Like any Christ figure, he was also slated for figurative crucifixion for, if nothing else, the insolence of his moral vision.
Che's final campaign, to "liberate" Bolivia (in the wake of his failure to achieve exactly the same end in the Congo), in fact to "sacrifice" it as the focal point -- the foco insurrecional of his cherished Pan-American socialist revolution -- is just such a figurative Calvary. By its inception in 1965, Che has already metamorphosed from the dashing mercenary with a heart of the Cuban revolution to become an international communist pariah; a scruffy imitation of Marat and Danton during the grim post-revolutionary tribunals, a wretched failure during his tenure as Cuban Minister of Industry and President of the Cuban National Bank, an embarrassment to the meretricious, Russian-leaning Fidel with his sarcastic bad-mouthing at the U.N. Just as Che has no head for musical tone, so he just can't dance the political waltz.
One can scarcely imagine an aged Che Guevara alongside Fidel and his subterranean brother Raul in recent photographs -- the great "revolutionaries" in their field gear and forage caps looking for all the world as scuzzy and usurious and power-drunk as the pallid anglo technocrats with whom they're exchanging shit-eating grins. Che would never fit here. He couldn't have stomached the reversal of cant. Guevara remained a mocking, half-smirk of a man, the blood unification of the northern and southern branches of one contentious tribe.
This pure Celtic heritage does tend to render Guevara's embrace of his "Latin Americanism" as pretentious and the man himself as, essentially, an arrogant dilettante. Dr. Ernesto Guevara Jr., his father's son, the European, the flamboyant conceited coastal Argentinian, saw the Indians of the continent, and their mixed blood progeny, as the "real" Americans. The perverse dichotomy is, of course, Che's self-deception in believing it his destiny to lead these "children" out of bondage. Misconception essentially sealed his fate as a supremely egotistical ideologue.
What Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life finally becomes (much to author Anderson's chagrin, one might imagine) is an example, in microcosm, for the failure of Marxist polemic in the face of global realpolitik; really the failure of absolutism in the face of reality. Guevara, stubborn and, one senses, increasingly fatalistic -- typically Taurean -- just decided to go for broke. One can only imagine Fidel enthusiastically going along with the scheme, thereby allowing his insubordinate comrade to self-combust far from the seats of Castro's own intrigues.
Che went off to meet destiny half-cocked. He didn't even know the regional dialect of the Bolivian peasants he was supposed to liberate. Worse, these "children" demurred from Che's brand of liberation, the Bolivian junta cannily peopling its armed forces with native conscripts and elevating their social position considerably above the usual Indian as chattel status endemic to most Latin American states. The peasants were soon forming armed bands of their own -- in order to hunt down their "liberator" for his inevitable symbolic crucifixion. It's not like Guevara didn't see the end coming either. He seemed to have been awaiting it. One gets a sense of this early on in his voluminous diaries, the entry "...the knowledge that a man goes looking for danger... and can die at a bend in the road without witnesses, makes this unknown adventurer seem possessed of a vaguely suicidal `fervor.'"
Finally captured by the CIA-supported Bolivian military, Ernesto "Che" Guevara de la Serna was executed October 9, 1967.
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