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Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.

By Jon Lee Anderson Grove Press. 800 pages. $35.00.

In October 1967, forty-year-old Ernesto Guevara and a small band of haggard guerrilla warriors, serving as Fidel Castro's international emissaries of revolution, fell victim to an ambush in the inhospitable mountains of Bolivia, not far from the site where Sucre, Simon Bolivar's lieutenant, met his fate trying to spread the war for liberation in the nineteenth century.

Disarmed, wounded in several places, suffering the effects of prolonged asthma attacks, "Che," the stoic apostle of modern revolution, surrendered to a troop of Bolivian Rangers who were under the supervision of a U.S. Special Forces contingent.

Someone took Che's picture after he was executed. In the photo of the dead Guevara reprinted in Jon Lee Anderson's book, a Bolivian officer points to the corpse below him, as if to teach the assembled onlookers--including a nearby CIA man--an important medical lesson.

Che became an instant martyr. Painter Raul Martinez soon created the image of the haloed radical prince. This Che survives, a decoration on the side of the Cuban Ministry of Interior and a face on Cuban-made T-shirts sold at Havana's airport.

In July 1968, Fidel Castro had just finished writing his introduction to Che Guevara's Bolivian diary when I began a week-long film trip with him in Oriente, Cuba's eastern province. Fidel still showed signs of grief and rage--against the Bolivian Communist Party leaders and their Soviet directors, whom he believed had betrayed Che.

For Fidel, Che's death meant more than the loss of a beloved comrade. It meant the defeat of the overarching Cuban strategy for world revolution through guerrilla war. The Soviet Union, Fidel insisted, had turned its back on Che and the cause of socialism.

In the summer of 1974, we drove together again, this time through the outskirts of Havana. Fidel still spoke passionately about Che. But this time, Fidel was more critical. "she was reckless," he said. "I had warned him on several occasions during our guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestre that he was too valuable to lose. I was worried because of his intemperate behavior, because he had no fear of death and would expose himself heedlessly to mortal danger."

A brilliant doctor, and a courageous and impulsive warrior, Ernesto Guevara Serna became the last enduring romantic myth of twentieth-century revolution. In a letter to his mother he describes himself as a servant of the poor. "Yet, I am not Christ or a philanthropist. . . . I am the contrary of Christ. . . . I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don't get nailed to the cross or any other place."

I hated to put down this War and Peace-sized tome because, like others who reflect on our lives and passions during that bizarre period, the 1960s, I strive to understand what drove this Poe-like character who was inspirational to so many radicals.

Jon Lee Anderson has interviewed Che's family, friends, acquaintances, political contacts, and comrades, gone through letters, diaries, and archives in Washington and Havana, and devoured the secondary sources. Unfortunately, for the author and the readers, neither Fidel Castro nor his younger brother Raul granted Anderson interviews.

Despite these crucial missing sources, Anderson has written a serious and information-filled book. To write Che's biography is a monumental challenge, one which Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared would "take me a thousand years and a million pages."

Though marred by some literary weakness and a less-than-solid knowledge of Marxist theory, Anderson offers the first comprehensive portrait of Che. Here is the man the CIA found so threatening that they launched operations to track and eliminate him; whom the Soviets called the eminence grise of the Cuban government; whom Jean-Paul Sartre called "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age."

Anderson tells of Che's Argentinean childhood with aristocratic, free-thinking parents, whose fortunes had gone to seed. Young Ernesto develops asthma, which gradually forces this daredevil child who "horrified his parents [by] leaping from high rocks into rivers, and bicycling along train tracks" to move from the capital to the dry air of Argentina's provinces.

Che's battle with asthma is one of the book's leitmotifs. The illness challenged Che into engaging in a constant character test. From his post-teen adventures motorcycling penniless through Latin America to his guerrilla years in the moist forests of Cuba's Sierra Maestra, Che forces himself into a series of confrontations with his weaknesses.

After seeing the misery of workers and peasants in Chile and Peru and witnessing the brutal extractive policies of imperial companies, Che becomes anti-American. The young allergy researcher finds some solace in a leper colony, and announces to the stunned lepers the inevitability of Latin American unification. His odyssey ends in 1954 in Guatemala, where he watches in impotence and frustration as the left fails to organize resistance to the CIA-backed military coup.

In 1955, Che drifts north to Mexico. An inspiring young lawyer, Fidel Castro, recruits him as doctor for an improbable military expedition to establish a guerrilla base in the eastern mountains of Cuba and then take on a 50,000-man army, equipped by the United States.

After their first meeting, Che realizes he has found the man who will show him the road to self-realization. Fidel realizes he has found in Che an angry anti-imperialist, ready to become an agent of radical history. Fidel makes Che into a man "at the ready whenever my services are necessary," Che said. Che discovers his identity as a warrior, in fraternal--albeit hierarchical--relationships with other men. "He had wholeheartedly embraced `la revolucion' as the ultimate embodiment of history's lessons and the correct path to the future," Anderson writes. "Now, convinced he was correct, he looked around with an inquisitor's merciless eye for those who might endanger its survival."

In the mountains, Che serves as an all-purpose officer, advising Fidel, planning the ambushes, treating the wounded, building the field hospitals, and executing the traitors. "Look," he tells a horrified friend who criticizes him for commanding execution squads of counter-revolutionaries, "in this thing either you kill first or else you get killed." He eventually becomes the military hero of the war by leading his small rag-tag troop to defeat an enormously superior Batista force at Santa Clara.

Anderson weaves Che's chaotic personal life, which he subordinated to his politics, in and out of the historical action. His first wife, Hilda, helps educate him politically only to be deserted with their first-born when Che joins the Granma expedition to bring Castro's guerrillas to Cuba. Then comes Aleida, the Cuban revolutionary who bears four of his children. Che leaves her, saying he must fulfill "the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever one may be." He adds, "This comforts and more than heals the deepest wounds."

Che had "the coldly analytical mind of the medical researcher and chess player," writes Anderson. "The terms he employs for individual humans are reductive and dehumanizing, while the value of their labor is idealized, rendered in lyrical and sympathetic description." To his own children he delivered a goodbye revolutionary lecture: "Grow up to be good revolutionaries. Study hard to be able to dominate the techniques that permit the domination of nature. Remember that the Revolution is what is important and that each one of us, on our own, is worthless."

In another letter to his mother, he curses himself for "not having studied more of surgery to attend to a wounded man," but, he reminds her, he never "turned away from the tough part which I have always liked. The skies have not turned black, the constellations have not come out of their orbits, nor have there been floods or overly insolent hurricanes; the signs are good. They signal victory. But if they are mistaken, and in the end even the gods make mistakes, then I believe I can say like a poet whom you don't know: `I will take to my grave/the nightmare of the unfinished song.'"

After Che died, Cuba moved away from Che's ideal to build the "new socialist man," free of pecuniary and full of moral incentive. In the 1970s, the Cuban government began to evolve into a Soviet-style bureaucracy and by the mid-1980s the inherent fraud of that system had begun to eat away at the society and the economy.

In 1987, I was again filming with Fidel. I witnessed his attempt to resurrect Che, this time as the symbol of socialist virtue to combat bureaucracy. Fidel called for "rectification," meaning that each citizen should return to Che's version of socialism. "Be like Che" is the slogan in today's Cuba.

Che made history in the days when it appeared do-able. Thirty years later we have a readable biography of this socialist icon who died trying to spark an uprising in Bolivia that was supposed to lead to "two, three, many Vietnams," the fall of imperialism, and the onset of the world socialist order.

Does it seem like a million years ago?

Saul Landau is a fellow at the Washington, D. C., Institute for Policy Studies and the Amsterdam Translational Institute. His newest film is "The Sixth Sun: Mayan Uprising in Chiapas."
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Author:Landau, Saul
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
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