Browsing the bursting bookshelves at Bangalore’s bookshop, Blossoms, I found myself hoping for a small miracle: that from the piles of tempting books, some priceless one that could not be denied would waft its way towards me. The miracle happened, in a manner of speaking: my hand fell on The Motorcycle Diaries of Ernesto Che Guevara and I knew I had a winner. These notes of an early journey across Latin America by the young medical student Ernesto — he would get the typical Argentinean nickname Che later — were not meant for publication. It would have been a pity if the notes had remained only a sheaf of typewritten pages, as they were till the 1980s: the Diaries is a fundamental text that provides not only a lyrical, entertaining and insightful account of Latin America in the early 1950s but is also a record of the inward journey of arguably the most romantic of 20 century icons, the guerrilla doctor whose trademark beret, long hair, beard and leather jacket have become synonymous with revolution.
The journey begins innocently enough: jaded with “medical schools, hospitals and exams”, the 23-year-old Ernesto (or Che) and the older, out-of-work leprosy doctor Alberto Granado decide to hit the long road on Granado’s 1939 500cc Norton bike, dubbed La Poderosa II (The Mighty One). Che’s parents worry that he is yet to get his medical degree and he is asthmatic (the Diaries contain sentences like “The next day was uneventful but asthmatic…”) but of course there is no stopping him. Any young man who has set off on a long journey searching for his guiding star in life will recognise the sentiments in the early part of the Diaries... the rush of the road, the dusty miles flying by, the thoughtful quiet evenings in strange places, the exchanging of confidences, the magic of the unpredictable encounter... Che’s words capture typical youthful yearnings of the footloose: “Distant countries, heroic deeds and beautiful women spun around and around in our turbulent imaginations.” And when he and Alberto stare out at “the immense sea, full of white-flecked and green reflections”, each far away with his own dreams, two stowaways between places as evocative as Valparaiso and Antofagasta, it’s only natural that he should write: “There we understood that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only ever faintly — not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things; the outer limits would suffice.”
The journey takes the two travellers from Argentina to Chile and then up to Peru, Venezuela and Columbia through mountains, deserts and rain forests. The narrative is not always intense; in fact for the most part it is racy and light-hearted, generously sprinkled with political incorrectness. Che alternates between being a political thinker and a poet and, when he is neither he is just a young man having fun on the road; the two hitch-hikers are not above playing confidence tricks on strangers for a free meal, drinks and rooms.
As Alberto, who died recently in Cuba, would recall later, it was fortuitous that La Poderosa did not prove mighty enough; after a series of accidents and mechanical collapses, the bike had to be left in Chile and the knights of the road suddenly became two grimy, hungry hitch-hikers who continued their journey by truck, bus, steamship and raft. This threw them into direct contact with the people, brought them close up with poverty and misery. What could have just another “coming of age” journey before the inevitable retreat into bourgeois comfort turned out to be the political awakening of the man who would play a critical role in Cuba’s revolution and in the Congo and would ultimately die trying to bring about a revolution in Bolivia, dreaming of the unchaining of all Latin America.
In Valparaiso, as they talk to swarms of beggars huddling under dark staircases Che writes: “...we plumb the city’s depths, the miasmas draw us in. Our distended nostrils inhale the poverty with sadistic intensity.” In the dying eyes of an asthmatic, poor old woman who can no longer earn her living with dignity as a waitress, Che “comprehends the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over.” And then, on the way to the massive, exploitative, copper mine at Chuquicamata — a symbol of “gringo” imperialism — his conscience is jolted by the sight of a persecuted Chilean communist couple: “The couple, numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert night, were a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world.” The Indians of Peru evoke another political reaction from Che: “...these people who watch us walk through the streets of the town are a defeated race. Their stares are tame, almost fearful, and completely indifferent to the outside world. Some give the impression that they go on living only because it’s a habit they cannot shake.”
On his 24th birthday — “the cusp of that transcendental quarter century, silver wedding of a life” — Che finds himself in an Amazonian leper colony. Drunk, or as he says “piscoed” on the Peruvian drink pisco, he defines his vision that the division of Latin America into “unstable and illusory nations is completely fictional” and all the people from Mexico to the Magellan Straits constitute a “single mestizo race.” When the two doctors finally leave on a raft down the river, the leprosy patients serenade them in a ghostly scene against the jungle, lamps reflecting in the river, an accordion player without fingers plays the instrument with little sticks tied to his wrist as he accompanies a blind singer.
It is no surprise that Che, having come so close to the misery of so many, has little doubt “that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon and, consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls into my hands... I feel my nostrils dilate, savouring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the enemy’s death; I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.”
So he wrote, so he lived and so eventually he died, blessed that life did not permit enough time for his ideals to corrode.