Argentina: “The Motorcycle Diaries” by Ernesto “Che” Guevara

The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
By Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Translator: Alexandra Keeble
Pages:  175
Publication: 1993
Version: Ocean Press (September 2004)
Also reviewed at: Curled Up

According to his daughter Aleida Guevara, the 22-year old Che never intended for his diary chronicling the nine month journey through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela with 29-year old friend Alberto Granado to be published.  Instead, the young medical student set off to chronicle the trip for his own purposes.  Guevara, a middle class educated Argentine who had already traveled to Europe and Asia as well as around parts of South America, sought a grand adventure in addition to some insight about the places and people that made up his native continent.  

The transformation in Che’s voice as the trip unfolds has been analyzed at length, with most commentators arguing that Che finds the social and political causes to which he ultimately dedicated his life through the course of this journey.  It is difficult to say how much of the transformation’s clarity, so pronounced in the pages of this edition, is the result of the subsequent editing to the manuscript for publication, since the book first appeared in print 27 years after Guevara’s death.  The fact that any editors of the work had the benefit of hindsight that comes with the examinations of Che’s life and times in the years since he first wrote the entries that became this book means that necessarily that which was deemed important to the historical context within which Che is now viewed is included, while that which does not seem relevant to our current picture of him is less likely to have survived the editing process.

The voice that is presented in the book is relatable and identifiable as that of an activist and eventually socialist leader.  At the outset of his trip, though, the reader is more likely to be turned off by the sense of entitlement and even a hint of elitist infallibility in the early diary entries.  The point of the trip, reimagined now as a grand quest for the soul of South America by bleary-eyed devotees of the myth of Che, was far more selfish — indeed, the trip was conceived as little more than a  self-indulgent pursuit of the open road and the adventure that comes with it, two buddies joining up for a grown-up summer vacation all their own.  This theme is borne out by the fact that the pair is consistently over-reliant on the kindness and charity of strangers to find suitable food, accommodations, and eventually, transportation.  They often resort to schemes, cons, and sob-stories to secure the necessary provisions, even running out on the occasional bill when all else fails.  This isn’t to say that the trip winds up any less grand, or that the Che that emerges from it is any less grand, but instead that given the human (and flawed) portrait of Che the pre-trip young man that we are presented with, the transformation is all the more striking.

Still, as a coming of age story, “The Motorcycle Diaries” has all of the usual elements.  The loss of young love, the struggle to make it alone, the recognition and acceptance of one’s place in the world, and the ultimate resolution on what to do about that place are all key threads in the story of Che Guevara, 22 year old student and adventurer.  The way that he and Alberto handle these struggles is not particularly grand or dramatic.  Che does not demonstrate many of the magnanimous leadership qualities that the world will come to know just a few short years after the trip.  Instead, though, it is the sense of awareness and community with others that seems most fully-formed at this stage in his life.

As they travel from place to place, the trip becomes less about the quest and more about the journey.  But nearly from the start, Che seems acutely in tune with the struggles of his fellow man.  The benefits of the education that his upbringing afforded him are clearly at least partially responsible, as Che repeatedly shows an understanding of the history and political landscape of the people and places they encounter.  The single most important key to understanding a conflict is the appreciation of the struggle from the perspective of its combatants.  In Che’s case, his ability to recognize the underlying motivations and misgivings of the Quechua speaking indigenous people of Peru, or the repressed miners and communists of Chile, gave him an immediate advantage in understanding and communing with them.  

His remarkable sense of those struggles and the speed with which he turned that sense into a bong with the people involved is what ultimately set Che on the path to becoming on of the key figures of Latin American history in the twentieth century.  In that sense, it is remarkable to journey back to 1952, when he was merely a medical student, to read Che’s own perspective on the relationships he forged with the repressed and underrepresented.  In reading “The Motorcycle Diaries” forty-odd years after his death, Che’s stories about the work he and Alberto did in Peruvian leper colonies take on new meaning.  Che’s descriptions of the deep gratitude the colonies’ residents showed him for what he had done for them are particularly striking.  At some point on the trip, Che came to recognized that as useful as it was to help someone, it goes ten times further with a person in need to truly listen to them, to treat them with respect. To make them feel human.  And to make them feel heard.  It was a lesson that guided Che as a leader for the rest of his life.

5 comments to Argentina: “The Motorcycle Diaries” by Ernesto “Che” Guevara

  • Eric

    I read this book a couple of years ago, and I think I was also traveling at the time. I admit that before this book (and even outside of this book), I know practically nothing about Che. He’s built up as sort of a mythic figure, and I thought that his journals made him more human than anything else possibly could. Even the writing (if I remember it correctly) is simple, very straightforward – if this writing was in a novel, I’d likely be dismissive of it – but here it’s another reminder that he is, essentially, just another person. Even, as Jordan says, that the trip is primarily a self-indulgent adventure is a hugely important point in relating to Che. What young person with ambitions doesn’t want to see the world?

    Jordan, you mentioned their reliance on the kindness of strangers. I don’t really think that points to a sence of self-indulgence (though the trip as a whole was certainly that). I’m of the impression that it was the norm for travelers to rely on the hospitality of others. I think it was largely this way even in the US up until the 1900s, and might still be common in much of the world. Hospitality to strangers is something that’s fallen by the wayside and even sounds crazy to most people today, but I think in the past it was almost an obligation to provide a traveler with shelter and a meal. Maybe we’re seeing a resurgence of this with things like couch surfing and warm showers.

    I’m a sucker for a great travel essay, and The Motorcycle Diaries is definitely that. I’ve often had the following come up in conversations while traveling: How can you have a world view if you haven’t left your own country? Travel is absolutely necessary to get a sense of what it means to be a person, to know your place in the world and how you and your fellow citizens of [country] relate to everyone else in the world. Che’s journals do a great job of illustrating that. Keep on traveling, people!

  • Jordan

    I think you’re right on that the writing is simple and straightforward. I intend to watch the movie sometime soon, and will be reporting back on that as well. I’m interested to see how relatable Che’s character is, and whether they employ a narrative device to retain the authenticity of his written voice.

    As to the kindness of strangers thing, there was a lot of taking this to an extreme, conning people and getting through by what I might call over-relying on strangers’ kindness. In general though, I think you’re right that large swaths of the world continue to maintain an open-door policy, extending their hospitality to strangers. I just found this to be taken to excess in some of the anecdotes Che relates.

    As a travelogue, the book is definitely enjoyable. Travel as a way of understanding yourself and how you fit in, as you describe it, definitely resonates with me as well. The jarring sense of confusion and difference that you can get from entering an entirely foreign atmosphere after a few hours on a plane can, in time, be extremely comforting as it opens your eyes to what is and is not important in your day/life. Hopefully this site and the books we read can function in a similar way to give us some perspective and sense of the world.

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