Sep 10, 2006

the motorcycle diaries

As coincidence would have it, I just finished The Motorcycle Diaries (the book) at the same time DocRPM watched the movie (his review here). This book has been on my shelf for a long time and I was determined to get through it this year. When I purchased it I thought, "Oh I don't know much about this guy, why not?" Upon closer inspection at home I realized the marketing for the book really turned me off it. The bottom of the book stated "Das Capital meets Easy Rider" - a quote from The Times. You are guaranteed the book will not be like either of them. It's like marketing a book as "The Davinci Code meets Harry Potter". You're stretching.

"A Latin James Dean or Jack Kerouac - The Washington Post"

The back also has a tagline - "A Latin James Dean or Jack Kerouac" by the Washington Post. Ahhh... No. This comment, I assure you, also has no basis in reality. Finally the book is called "The Motorcycle Diaries". In reality their bike (La Poderosa II - aka the Powerful One) is only around for the first 30 pages before giving up the ghost. Again one senses a marketing involvement here in the title creation. Whatever. It made me not want to read the book for a long time. I'm cleaning through my unread books this year so I got over it.

The Speed Doctor admits a lack of perspective on Guevara's history in order to place Guevara and the movie in the correct context (biography or fiction). My understanding of history is probably more pathetic than his but luckily I was reading 'source' material in this case. The book is based on the diaries of Guevara so there is some truth and 'first account-ness' to it.

I think I come away from the book with a better understanding of Guevara. Not surprisingly he was everything you might expect in a good mid-20th century revolutionary - charismatic , juvenile, an excellent writer, an anti-semite, arrogant, sexist, witty, duplicitous, talented, homophobic, smart in some subjects, ignorant and simplistic in others, and incapable of distinguishing between the two. Overall he comes off as a bit of a dick. This description has some caveats. The context of the book is a cross continent excursion Guevara takes with his friend across South America at the age of 23. He was young when he did this.

And clearly his perspectives on the world were being formed. I'm sure my diaries at 23 (if I had any) would be littered with juvenile ideas (apart from being boring) as well. It should also be noted that he later revised text from his diaries into this final book form. When he did this, I could not determine. If the editing was done later in life then the motivation exists to self-edit in a way to bolster his image.

The writing itself is quite good. There were passages where I thought the writing was so unique and well done that he would have been more effective as a writer than a revolutionary with a gun in tote. Not surprisingly, there's some Hemingway in him. The writing is less politics and more road trip. A tad disappointing from my perspective. It really is a travel journal more than anything else. But because the journey was taken to see the state of the average person in South America you do get some insights into his revolutionary views. Unfortunately for him the views come off as superficial and ill thought out.

Most telling about Guevara is the way he treats the people he meets. Leech is the word that most came to mind. While he came from a family of means, he basically survives off of the goodwill of others. That's fine. But he never seems particularly thankful and often takes advantage of the situation. When wine he steals from an employer is taken back by the employer, he refers to him as a 'thief' and is indignant of their actions. One person who puts him up for the night is treated to Guevara defecating out his window. The next morning he realizes it was onto a roof. He hightails it out before he is caught. His charisma doesn't come through in the pages although it has to be inferred by the number of people who generously give him food and shelter. He's sometimes grateful for the help but it is fleeting. And if there is some kind of work or monetary payment required for these gifts he is upset about this. In a nutshell he's the kind of guy that I couldn't stand to be around.

He does show some compassion to those in a truly dismal state. He visits leper colonies. But he's hypocritical about his support of the proletariat. A vagrant family he stumbles upon is in such a poor state that he gives them his blanket and ruminates on the injustices that led to their predicament. But later when he tried to get a ride from a 'taxi driver' who was poor but trying to make a living, he has nothing but contempt that he didn't receive the ride for free. Basically if you do anything to empower yourself, Guevara takes that as an afront.

Another distressing aspect of Guevara is this niggling feeling I get that much of the writing is embellished. He states often in the book that his conversations he has with people he meets are embellished so why not with his readers? How much of what I'm reading is real?

His understanding of economics is abysmal as well. And from what I've read elsewhere about him this never improved as he bankrupted a few industries. He bemoans the number of free hospitals in Chile and then wonders why there aren't enough of them or enough supplies. More should be opened but he doesn't give a thought to where that capital would come from.

There's is one interesting passage where he encounters a mulatto who has killed someone. He forgives him in mind because his father was a slave. To allow murder because of past wrongs probably played strongly in his justification for the violence he would bring in the future.

So after reading this I ask myself why he's such an icon. It may have to do with what he did later in life and what I'm unaware of. But I suspect it is because he died young. He's been romanticized. Why else compare him to James Dean or Jack Kerouac?

A final aside - 'Che', his nickname, means pal or buddy.

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