The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
By Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Translator: Alexandra Keeble
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.