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.