More than forty years after his violent death in the jungles of Bolivia Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara remains an iconic figure in the world history of the twentieth century. The man who met his death in a remote corner of the world with cheerful insouciance would have appreciated the irony that in his death he has become a figure of inspiration to many in the Capitalist world, a system he despised and which he was attempting to overthrow in Bolivia using violent, guerrilla tactics, when he was captured and killed.
The fascination with the life of Fidel Castro’s first Minister for Industries is endless. Ten years ago the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, based on a journey of Latin American countries Guevara undertook with his friend Alberto Granado, was released to great critical acclaim and, if my memory serves me right, won an Oscar. (Granado was a life-long friend of Che Guevara, and the movie was based on his and Che Guevara’s travel diaries. Granado’s diaries, Travelling with Che Guevara, were published in English for the first time in 2003, following the success of the film. Granado immigrated to Cuba in 1961, where he went on to become professor of medical biochemistry in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Havana).
In 2007 was published, for the first time in English, The Young Che: memories of Che Guevara. The book is an amalgamation of two books, originally published in Spanish, in the 1980s. It achieves poignancy (in the minds of readers so inclined) because it was written by Che Guevara’s father, also called (to confuse matters a bit) Ernesto Guevara, although he went by the hyphenated surname, Guevara-Lynch (his mother was of Irish descent). Henceforth, in this review, to avoid confusion, Ernesto Guevara, the revolutionary, would be referred to by the nickname with which his revolutionary comrades called him and he is widely known: ‘Che’ (we learn from the book that ‘Che’ is an expression generally used in Latin America to refer to people from Argentina, as it is apparently an interjection with which they often pepper their conversation); while his father, the writer of the memoirs, will be referred to as he was probably always known in his life: the hyphenated surname—Guevara-Lynch.
The original Spanish memoirs were published in 1981 and 1987 respectively, the second posthumously.
The memoir traces young Che Guevara’s life in Argentina to the point where he departs for Cuba to take part in Castro’s revolution. The epilogue, written by Che Guevara’s friend from his medical school, Tita Infante, a year after his death, adds poignancy to the memoir. (Infante toyed with the idea of immigrating to Cuba after Castro’s revolution, but didn’t, a decision she regretted in later life; she committed suicide in 1976).
Based extensively on the personal letters Che Guevara wrote to his parents, the memoir throws into sharp relief the kind of person the man—who, in 1961, published Guerrila Warfare—A Method—was in his childhood, teens and youth.
Guevara-Lynch probably began writing the memoir in the 1970s (the English language book has a foreword from him dated 1972-1973.) By that time his son’s place in the cannons of left-wing revolutionary history was assured. The father seems very aware of the status of his dead son when he writes the memoir. He informs the reader that he himself was left-wing leaning in his politics, so it wasn’t as if he had to do a great deal of ideological acrobatics to accommodate and extol the views of his son. Where Che Guevara differed, one guesses, from his father was: whereas the father was content to express his outrage to friends and families at what he saw as repeated interference by the Capitalist USA in internal affairs of several Latin American countries, rich in natural resources (where CIA-engineered coups overthrew popular, Socialist governments and put in place puppet dictators), he did not see as his job to actually do anything about it. His middle-class Socialism was within the perimeter of his middle-class life-style.
Che Guevara was not content with merely chattering about the Capitalist outrages. He joined hands with Fidel Castro and overthrew the Cuban dictatorship of Batista.
Does the memoir throw any light on—to put it clichédly—what made Che Guevara Che Guevara? Not really. Much as you try to understand, there is nothing in Guevara’s childhood, no one single seminal event that one can say set him on the path which, in 1967, ended in the Bolivian jungles. If anything, there was everything in his illustrious and affluent family background that should have set him comfortably in life. And it wasn’t as if he grew up hating everything that his family stood for. According to the memoir, Che Guevera had a very secure and happy—you could say ordinary—childhood; and throughout his brief life he remained very close to his family.
Che Guevara’s great-grandfather (from his father’s side), Francisco Lynch, in the 19th century, left Buneos Aires for Uruguay, along with several of his relatives, because he did not want to live under the dictatorship of General Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829-1852). Francisco eventually landed in California where he amassed a fortune. Che Guevara’s other paternal great-grandfather, Juan Anonio Guevara, was a direct descendent of the founders of the city of Mendoza; his was the ninth generation of Guevaras born in Argentina, although the family came originally from Chile. Juan Antonio Guevara, too, was bitten by the gold bug, and travelled to California from Mexico on a horseback. Unlike Che Guevara’s other great-grandfather, the Californian venture turned out to be a failure for Juan Antonio Guevara, and he returned to Argentina with wife and children, amongst them Roberto Guevara, Che Guevara’s paternal grandfather. Che Guevara’s mother, Celia de la Serna, also came from an extremely rich family, her father having inherited a vast fortune. Her father owned several ranches; he was also a successful lawyer and was professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Buneos Aires. Guevara remained very close to his mother until her death (Celia de la Serna had the good fortune of predeceasing her son by a couple of years, whereas his father outlived him by several years), and she, in turn, had special affection for her eldest child. After the successful revolution in Cuba, of which Che Guevara was one of the architects, Celia learned about her son’s revolutionary politics and ideas, and came to understand his thinking in depth. She began, in the 1960s, to travel to Brazil and other Latin American countries, giving lectures on the logic and justice of the Cuban revolution.
Che Guevara’s father, Ernesto Guevara-Lynch, was a trained architect. In 1926, ‘quite by accident’, Guevara-Lynch got the opportunity to develop 70,000 hectares in Alto Parana (a happy accident if there was one), in the territory of Misiones. Che Guevara was born in Misiones and it was there that he spent the first two years of his life.
As a child Che Guevara suffered from life-threatening attacks of asthma, which remained a great cause of concern for his parents throughout his childhood. As one reads of the endless nights the parents spent, sitting next to young Che, the various specialist opinions they sought, and the different locations within Argentina to which the family moved—resulting in considerable interruptions in his father’s jobs, not to mention financial strains of the frequent moves—in search of climate which they hoped would suit young Che, a picture emerges of a closely knit, loving family, with doting parents, who were prepared to do everything for their child. Years later Che Guevara, while studying medicine, would develop special interest in allergic conditions, and the interest was perhaps rooted in the childhood malady.
Che Guevara was only a boy when the Spanish Civil war started. However, the family was close to some of the Republican exiles, in particular General Enrique Jurado, the hero of the battle of Guadalajara. General Jurado visited the Guevara-Lynch family and often regaled them with stories of the civil war. Little did Guevara-Lynch realise that the delicate, asthmatic boy, listening intently to the general’s stories would, one day, command his own troops.
Che Guevara was an intelligent, precocious child. He was also—his father recalls—‘deeply attracted to danger’. He actively sought danger and seemed to enjoy overcoming it. When the family was living in Alta Gracia (in the region of Cordoba), Che Guevara used to go for walks with his friends, one of them Alberto Granado. According to a story Granado told Guevara-lynch (after Che Guevara’s death), a favourite sport of Che Guevara during these walks was to balance himself on the ledge of a railway bridge, which was about twenty meters high, above a stream and hang on with his hands, with his legs above his head and his back to the abyss. If there were girls in the group he would take even more risks. Knowing as you do the sensational trajectory Che Guevara’s life took, you wonder whether incidents such as these were harbingers of the things to come.
As an adolescent Che Guevara had a wide circle of friends from all social strata. He was loyal to his friends. He apparently did not enjoy large social gatherings, as he was reserved by nature. He was also a poor dancer and did not much care for music; but he enjoyed small parties where young men and women were present. He had a stubborn streak in him and, even though he continued to experience violent attacks of asthma—which concerned his father—, participated regularly in rugby, and excelled.
In 1947 Che Guevara informed his parents that he wanted to study medicine. His grandmother, to whom he was very close, was terminally ill at the time, and according to Guevara-Lynch, the decision to join medicine had to do with her illness. Throughout his years in the medical school, Che Guevara also occupied himself full-time with various activities, yet he managed to pass all the exams at first attempt. He did not need to swot for exams; academic achievements, it would appear, came easily to him. Around this time he also started working in the laboratory of a specialist in allergies and who had in fact treated him for his asthma when he was young. After he qualified, Doctor Ernesto—‘Che’—Guevara presented a couple of papers in international medical conferences. When he passed his final medical exam and obtained his degree, the first person Che Guevara phoned was his father. Guevara-Lynch was in his studio when the phone rang. When he picked up the phone, a voice which he recognised immediately announced with obvious pride that it was Doctor Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. The emphasis was on the word ‘doctor’.
When you read Guevara-Lynch’s memoir, the one impression that is left on your mind is that his son was a restless soul. It was not in his nature to sit back and enjoy the comforts that surely his profession (and possible inheritance) would have made it possible. Novelty seeking was a deeply ingrained in his temperament and if that meant facing hazards and danger, then it was a small price to pay for the thrill and enjoyment the derring-dos offered. In the memoir we learn that before his motorcycle journeys across Latin America with his friend Alberto Granado (made into the film The Motorcycle Diaries), Che Guevara bicycled across 14 provinces of Argentina.
If the family had any hopes that Che would settle into medical practice after obtaining his medical degree, they were dashed when he announced that he was embarking on another trip, this time, to Bolivia and Peru. This is how Guvera-Lynch records his emotions when Che informed him of his forthcoming trip:
‘He [Che Guevara] was no longer a child, he was Dr Guevara de la Serna, and he would do as he pleased. All we could do now was learn to grin and bear it and try to help him as much as possible—something that he nearly always turned down.’
Guevara-Lynch arranged a big farewell party for Che and on a cold afternoon in July 1953, Che Guevara boarded the train for Bolivia. The family would not see him for the next seven years. When they finally met him in 1960, Che Guevara was Minister of Industries in Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba.
As the train pulled off, Che Guevara shouted at his waving parents and friends: ‘Here goes the soldier of the Americas’. At the time Guevara-Lynch did not pay any attention, believing it to be another eccentricity of his son. Little did he know.
Che Guevara travelled to Bolivia because he wanted to witness, first-hand, the revolution that was allegedly in progress and which was expected to topple the government of Paz Estenssoro. The memoir directly quotes from the diaries Che Guevara kept during this period. (It would appear that although Che Guevara never actually practised medicine, concerning himself, instead, with toppling governments, he was very doctor-like in at least one respect: his handwriting was indecipherable.) Che Guevara’s letters to his father from Bolivia show that the sharp-minded future revolutionary needed only a few days to understand the socio-political problems faced by Bolivia. He also immersed himself in Argentine politics by lively discussions with the exiles (opposed to the rule of Peron). From Bolivia Che Guevara travelled to Peru (disappointed that he did not have time to stay back and witness the armed revolt he was certain would take place against Estenssoro).
The country, the stay in which probably firmly pushed Che Guevara towards Communism, was Guatemala. Che Guevara arrived in Guatemala via Panama and Costa Rica, in 1954. A letter Che wrote to his maternal aunt (to whom he was very close), from San Jose, Costa Rica, gave his family for the first time an idea as to his political thoughts. He declared that the capitalists were ‘terrible’ and went on to inform the aunt (who was not at all a Communist sympathizer) that he had ‘sworn in front of an image of old and much-lamented Comrade Stalin’ that he would not ‘rest until I see these capitalists crushed.’ According to Guevara-Lynch, Che Guevara enjoyed a close and informal relationship with his aunt and the tone of many of his letters to her was deliberately alarming, but also written in a manner that was almost tongue-in-cheek. However, in the same letter came a sentence, towards the end, which the family took no notice of at the time, but which seemed portentous to Guevara-Lynch as he sifted through Che’s letters when he began writing the memoir after his death. Che Guevara wrote:
‘I will perfect my skills in Guatemala and I will achieve what I still lack in order to be an authentic revolutionary.’
This was also the first letter of the time in which Che no longer mentioned medicine; instead the letter was full of his observations on the social and political situation of the poor and oppressed peoples.
In Guatemala Che also met the woman who became his first wife. Her name was Hilda Gadea. She was a Peruvian economist, a political exile (for her left wing views) following the military coup in Peru by General Manuel Odria. Gadea worked at Guatemalan Institution for the Promotion of Production.
Gadea would be Che Guevara’s companion (and wife) for a few years; the marriage would produce one daughter; and they would part on friendly terms.
In Guatemala, Che wasted little time in getting intimately involved in the political turmoil in the region. At the time United Fruit, a powerful banana company, dominated the Guatemalan economy. As Che Guevara saw it, the company, backed by the power of the United States had ‘total power’ over people. Che, who was not a native Guatemalan, positioned himself, politically, with the Guatemalan government of President Arbenz, of which the Communist party of Guatemala (it called itself Workers’ Party of Guatemala) was a member. He wrote long letters to his parents about his assessment of what was going on in the country. What was going on was a coup. Coup was in the air. Castillo Armas, with the support of the USA, invaded Guatemala from Honduras, toppling the Socialist government of Jacobo Arbenz. Che was in Guatemala when the coup took place and briefly asked for an asylum at the Argentine embassy. He left the country after the fall of Arbenz, for Mexico, convinced in his mind that there was only one way to resist what he saw as America’s aggressive capitalism in the region; and that was not Gandhi’s peaceful non-cooperation. Hilda, whom Che Guevara referred to as his companera (companion) in his letters to his parents (and only towards the end of his stay in Guatemala), stayed back and was jailed. She was eventually released because of her Peruvian nationality, but only after a lot of suffering.
During his stay in Guatemala, Che Guevara met with many important people, one of whom was Dr Arnesto Bauer Paiz, who at the time was President of the National Agrarian Bank of Guatemala. Years later, this is how Professor Bauer remembered Che Guevara:
‘He was a young doctor, but did not look like one, but rather like a student, restless and cheerful . . . The meeting was animated not just because of Ernesto’s conversational skills, but because of the subjects broached as well. . . . If I am to speak with total candour . . . Ernesto and I, although quite influenced by Marxist ideology, still had certain political ideas that were populists . . .’
When he left Guatemala for Mexico, Che Guevara sent his parents a box that contained more than 100 of his books. The majority of the books dealt with the social and political aspects, but there were also books on subjects such as statistics, economics and geography.
Going through the scores of letters Che Guevara sent to his family from this period, years after his death, his father was struck by the jaunty, chatty and amusing tone of them. He (the father) was also forced to conclude, with the benefit of hindsight, that his son, deliberately or otherwise, had not given his family any indication of the turn his life was about to take. The family continued to fondly believe—rather hope—that Che’s interest in the politics of the Central and Latin Americas would not take over his life and that he would return to Argentina in due course to start his medical practice.
The subterfuge would continue in Mexico.
Che Guevara arrived in Mexico in September 1954 and, to make ends meet, became a street photographer. This section of the memoir includes some letters Che wrote to his friend from his medical school, Tita Infante. He concludes one of the letters as follows, which gives you an idea of the kind of person he was:
‘Going back to the uncomfortable subject of advice I will give you my last: always throw fears overboard because they complicate matters. It is always better to have the bitter-sweet taste in your mouth of a frustrated yearning than an unfounded image of what might have been.’
In his letter to his parents Che wrote that he was getting involved in two pieces of medical research. He also declared his intention to write a book. He had thought of the title of this book: The Function of the Doctor in Latin America. He then remarked, tongue in cheek, that he could speak with some authority on the subject because, although he did not know a lot about medicine, he had Latin America well sussed out. Che Guevara never wrote the book on the functions of a doctor in Latin America; instead he wrote a book on the guerrilla warfare.
The letters from Mexico were full of rant against the USA. Che Guevara had concluded that the Mexican government was in the pocket of the Americans. There were grave prognostications for Mexico’s future. (‘In Mexico there are practically no independent industries and even less free trade. This country is heading for total disintegration and I am not exaggerating; the only way you could make any money here would be by being a pimp for the Americans.’)
There was also some admittance, albeit indirect, in these letters, that he had probably been a disappointment to his parents. Che concluded one of the letters to his father with the observation: ‘I have grown tired of talking nonsense and you of reading it.’ In another letter, this time to Tita Infante, he called himself ‘a first class failure, scientifically speaking’.
Then the tone and content of Che Guevara’s letters to his parents changed, giving hope to them that perhaps all was not lost. He informed them that he had won a scholarship at the General Hospital of the Mexico. This was followed by another letter which told the parents that his hospital post was going well and that he was working in the laboratory of the hospital doing allergy research. He was now working with the ‘top man of allergy in Mexico’, Dr. Salazar Malan. He indicated to his parents that more exciting research projects were in the pipeline.
Che’s Peruvian wife, Hilda, now working for the United Nations, joined him in Mexico. Hilda was pregnant and Che wrote to his aunt:
‘Life goes on with bourgeois sloth, without anything to cloud my daily work, not even the proximity of the baby, which will apparently arrive between the last week of February and first week of March.’
What little cause for concern the family might have had was removed when Che announced in one of the letters that there was a very good chance that he would become a professor of physiology at the National University Mexico.
In April 1956, Che informed his parents in a letter that his baby girl was born and in good health. The professorship in Physiology, however, had not materialised, because Che had ‘realised’ that Physiology was not his ‘forte’. He ended this letter with:
‘A big hug for everyone . . . from this misunderstood champion of freedom.’
The above letter, sent from Mexico in April 1956, arrived in Argentina in July 1956. The same month the international telegraph, as Guvera-Lynch recalls in the memoir, ‘went mad’: Fidel Castro had been taken prisoner with a group of Cuban revolutionaries and some foreign ones, amongst whom was Dr Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.
The news went through the family like a wildfire. Guevara-Lynch, going mad with worry, tried every means to find out what was going on with his son in Mexico. Che Guevara was, by this time, in jail in the city of Mexico. It began to dawn on the family that all the news Che had fed them in his earlier letters about possible professorships and assignments was simply a smoke-screen to deceive the family as well as the Mexican and American Information Service, which, at that time, were on the lookout for any clues that would enable them to frustrate the invasion of Cuba.
Guvera-Lynch wrote a letter to his son, incarcerated in the municipal prison, Mexico, asking him to explain ‘without beating about the bush’ his [Che Guevara’s] position within the 26 July Movement that until then, he [Guevara-Lynch] ‘was not aware of’.
He received a reply the same month. In the letter, transcribed in the memoir in its entirety, Che Guevara gave a full account of his association with ‘a young Cuban leader’. He informed his parents that he had decided to join Castro’s movement for the armed liberation of his [Castro’s] land. He accepted (but did not apologize) that for the previous few months he had been keeping up the lie to the family about his professional activities. He had never had any scholarship; he was not involved in any research; he was busy in physical training of the ‘boys’ who ‘must one day set foot in Cuba’. He informed his father categorically that his future was linked to the Cuban revolution. ‘Either I succeed with it or I die there.’
In the memoir, this is how Guevara-Lynch records his reaction when he received his son’s letter.
‘. . . letter fell like a bomb on our family. Our hopes that Ernesto would one day become a scientist, following his medical career, melted like snow in the sun. . . Now the truth was out in the open. We could no longer harbour any doubts. He [Che] had just exchanged all his studies and medical career . . .for something much more dangerous, in which he had placed all his faith: armed struggle against the American Imperialists who were exploiting the underdeveloped peoples of Latin America.’
The memoir ends with another long letter Che wrote to his mother in October 1956, when he was out of jail. He begins the letter by calling himself his mother’s ‘filthy son’ with ‘profession of a grasshopper—here today, there tomorrow etc.’ He ends the letter thus:
‘Now all that is left is the final part of the speech with reference to the little man himself [Che Guevara] and which could be titled: ‘And now what?’ Now comes the difficult thing that which I have never avoided and which I have always liked. The sky has not turned black, the constellations have not been affected, nor have there been any nasty floods or hurricanes. The signs are good. They augur victory. But if they were mistaken, since even the gods make mistakes, I believe that I will be able to say like the poet you do not know, “I will only take with me to the grave the sorrow of an unfinished song.”
I kiss you again with all the affection of a parting that refuses to be the final one.’
The Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara is one of the most moving and affecting character portrait I have read in many years. Che Guevara who emerges out of the memoir, assembled by his father from several letters Che wrote to his family (several years after his death), is a vivacious and cheerful young man, full of joy for life; an idealistic man who felt an overriding empathy for the oppressed and the downtrodden; a man who was prepared to jettison comforts of his comfortable family background; a man who had a great sense of humour and derived enjoyment from small things in life; and a man, above all, who, no matter which corner of the world he was in, remained close to his family.
The memoir is as much about Che Guevara’s family as him; and the father Ernesto Guevara-Lynch, emerges out of it with shining colours, not least because of the honesty with which he records his emotions, as his son leads—as he himself puts it in his last letter—the life of a grasshopper. The family’s anxieties, the concerns, and the uncertainties—all linked to the path down which Che Guevara was going—and the frustration that this intelligent, highly qualified young man was wasting his talents (as the parents saw it at the time) are all recorded with endearing honesty.
The Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara is also a very scholarly book. Through Che Guevara’s letters to his family and his parents’ to him, the reader is provided with more than a glimpse of the socio-political history of the South Americas (albeit with a strong ideological left-wing bias).
An excellent read. A book to be savoured again and again.