The Guardian November 6, 2002


The Motorcycle Diaries, A Journey around South America

by Ernesto Che Guevara  Translated by Ann Wright

Reviewed by Steven Katsineras

Reading this book brought back a lot of memories. As a young man of 16 
years old I discovered Ernesto Che Guevara when I read about his death in 
1967 in Bolivia. He was there fighting with the National Liberation Army of 
Bolivia. On October 8, he was wounded and captured by US special forces and 
Bolivian army soldiers, who later executed him and secretly buried his 
body.

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

I thought like Che did and his views on injustice and inequality and how to 
overcome them rang true to me. He became a hero and I aspired to be like 
him. Over the years I read everything I could find written by or about Che 
Guevara.

It is necessary to give some brief biographical background of Che to 
understand something of the significance of The Motorcycle Diaries.

He was born Ernesto Che Guevara de la Serna 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" and "mate" and Argentineans 
are often nicknamed Che in countries using other languages.

His family was a large, upper middle class family with radical ideas. In 
1948, Ernesto entered the University of Buenos Aires to study medicine.

He had a keen interest in literature, travel and sport, especially soccer 
and rugby despite severe asthma. In 1950, Guevara made a 4000-mile trip 
around northern Argentina.

In 1951, while a medical student, aged 23, Ernesto undertook a journey 
around South America for a year, on a Norton 500 motorcycle called La 
Poderosa Two (literally "the powerful one"), and it is this journey that is 
narrated in his book The Motorcycle Diaries. He travelled with an 
older radical doctor friend, Alberto Granado, who specialised in leprology.

Motorcycle Diaries is a vivid account of the adventure of a 
lifetime. It is full of drama and comedy.

Che Guevara and his friend Alberto leave the university and a life of 
privilege for ten months on the road. While there are fights, sexual 
encounters and drunken parties, there are also very moving examples of 
Che's idealism and his solidarity with the oppressed.

Their experiences bought them personally face to face with the poverty and 
inequality of South America. During their travels the two worked with 
people suffering with leprosy and saw the terrible living conditions of the 
people.

The Motorcycle Diaries gives an insight into the radicalisation of 
Che, the nascent revolutionary.

He writes in a very natural, free-flowing and descriptive prose that suits 
well a travel narrative. His poetic descriptions of the mystery and beauty 
of the wild and mountainous continent are wonderful.

The title is a little misleading as the motorcycle La Podersa 2 gives up 
part way through their journey. The friends then hitchhike on market 
trucks, travel on a narrow gauge railway, stow away on freighters, share a 
cargo plane with horses and raft down a river on a homemade raft. With 
little money the two use their skills to get rides and survive.

Che is greatly impressed by the people he meets and praises the hospitality 
of the common people of South America, describing such incidents like that 
the Chilean communist sulphur miner who says, "Come, comrades, come and eat 
with us. I'm a vagrant, too".

The irony of the situation and of their backgrounds was not lost on Che. 
This trip shows the young Che embracing the people and the 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 comes towards the end and is titled "As an 
Afterthought". Che has a "revelation" where, in a mystically surreal night 
scene an old man speaks to him about revolution and sacrifice in wise and 
profoundly prophetic words and foretells Che's destiny of struggle and 
death.

Che says afterwards, "I now knew ... I knew that when the great spirit 
cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people. 
And I know it because I see imprinted on the night that I ... consumed with 
rage, will slaughter any enemy I lay hands on. And then I see myself being 
sacrificed to the authentic revolution, the great leveller of individual 
will, pronouncing the exemplary mea culpa."

I found this to be deeply moving and I remembered reading a long time ago 
that, as Che waited to be executed, a solider seeing him deep in thought, 
mockingly asked, "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 no biographical study or proper 
understanding of Che Guevara is truly complete without reading this book.

It is not a sanitised version of the young Che, but the real person. 
Reading it is an inspiring and delightful experience and I highly recommend 
it to anyone who has an interest in life. It resonates with the heart and 
spirit of an exceptionally remarkable human being.

The book is neatly wrapped up with a prologue and epilogue from the 
writings of Che's father, Ernesto Guevara Lynch.

"If you tremble with indignation at every injustice, then you're a comrade 
of mine."

Che Guevara 1928  1967.

* * *
The Motorcycle Diaries, A Journey Around South America 155pp is published by Fourth Estate (London) and distributed in Australia by Harper & Collins, rrp $19.95. In conjunction with the Che Guevara Studies Centre in Havana, Ocean Press has plans to publish a new expanded edition of The Motorcycle Diaries in English and Spanish.

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