The Story of Che Guevara: A hit and myth biography

JS TENNANT reviews The Story of Che Guevara By Lucía Álvarez de Toledo for the Irish Times.

CHE GUEVARA the man and Che Guevara the legacy are two very different things. Lucía Álvarez de Toledo attempts to explain the myth through a detailed look at the life: not an easy task. It never fails to amaze me how the shiftless young adventurer, who held few political convictions until his mid 20s, became the Marxist icon of the pop-art generation.

Unfortunately, Guevara the man is ground that has been gone over many times before, and adequately. It will be some years before enough new documents resurface, or are declassified, to warrant another biography. And this is assuming the relevant papers have not disappeared down memory holes in Havana’s ministry of the interior.

That the author is from the same Argentinian social milieu as Guevara, and that she was also a bed-ridden youth, seem tenuous claims to an originality of approach. While knowledge of indigenous flora and fauna in a region where Guevara lived as a child, or the fact that Argentines are proud of the quality of their flour, may add local colour, such facts hardly add to an understanding of the subject.

Much has been made of Guevara’s chronic asthma: it must surely have hardened his resolve and heightened an already combative spirit. The condition also led to his choice of career as a doctor. A biography must by necessity look for pegs to hang its theories on, but asthma alone does not explain the man he became. The striking aspect of Guevara’s early travel diaries is the very lack of the revolutionary zeal that was to come later.

Witnessing the overthrow of the Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 was undoubtedly a watershed in Guevara’s political outlook, but digging earlier than this provides few clear clues. In his youth Ernesto Guevara de la Serna – descended from two patrician Buenos Aires families – seems to have been motivated by a kind of middle-class angst as much as anything else. He showed little interest in the politics of his home country at this stage, but appears stifled by the era’s class traditions.

Álvarez de Toledo offers a good background to Guevara’s shambolic incursions in Congo and Bolivia, but her bare prose style is peppered with unsourced anecdotes, such as an unlikely one about Fidel Castro claiming the need to create a “socialist” revolution just after the rout at Alegría de Pío, three days after his rebels landed in 1956. She paints a rather bucolic picture of the “experimental correction centre” Guevara set up on the remote Guanahacabibes peninsular, and draws a bizarre comparison between Che’s “revolutionary” qualities and those of Eva Perón. There are also mistakes: in 1741 the British captured not the island but, briefly, Guantánamo; they captured Havana in 1762. And there was racial segregation in the Cuba of the 1950s.

The Story of Che Guevara covers the same material as Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life but not as well or as thoroughly. Anderson’s book is conspicuously absent from Álvarez de Toledo’s ambitious bibliography, but she does refer to an “unnamed” American biographer whom she denigrates for the mere fact of his nationality.

This, along with rather empty asides, such as “Che was probably the only person capable of stimulating Castro’s intellect until Gabriel García Márquez came along many years later”, and constant references to Guevara’s good looks and “manliness”, set the tone for a not very necessary book.

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