Beautiful obscenities, and the forgotten dead
In today’s NYTimes, Aleida Guevara, Che Guevara’s daughter, rhapsodises about her father (who died when she was six years old), saying “What I remember most is my father’s great capacity for love.” She asks, “Have the film and the book [The Motorcycle Diaries] become so popular because his strength and tenderness are a model for the people we need in these times?”
Sean O’Hagan predicted last July
The myth of Che the romantic hero is about to enter a new phase with the release of The Motorcycle Diaries, a rose-tinted road movie based on the book the pre-revolutionary Ernesto Guevara wrote about his journey across Latin America in the company of his best friend, Alberto Granado.
Capacity for love, tenderness? Christopher Hitchens has said,
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 Che was more bullish even than Castro or Khrushchev, seemingly unconcerned that the whole world was holding its breath over the outcome. ‘The worst thing I heard about him,’ says Hitchens, ‘is that he was in favour of launching the missiles. That, for me, is a contradiction too far. You can’t be a great revolutionary who wants to free the world and be a guy who wants to push the button. You can only be one or the other.’
O’Hagan looks at the reality of Che’s true nature:
Che was an inspiring leader but also a harsh and unbending taskmaster, who meted out stern punishment. On his orders, several peasants were executed for disloyalty, as were local bandits who preyed on the poor. Others, often no more than boys, underwent mock executions. ‘We blindfolded them,’ he wrote later, ‘and subjected them to the anguish of a simulated firing squad.’
That’s not to say that Fernando was spared from the firing squad, once he was jailed. No. Prisoners such as Fernando were often prepared for execution, led to the paredon, and shot at. Prior warnings were not considered necessary. Too formal.
Preparen! Apunten! Fuego!
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Laughter. Luod, racous laughter.
“Look, the bastard crapped in his pants!”
“Bet you thought this would be it, huh?”
“Bet you liked our aim, didn’t you? We’re such bad marksmen. Ha!”
“Jus fooling. These weren’t blanks at all. We just aimed above your head. Ha, ha! Fooled you, ha! But this one coming up now is for real!”
Okay, men, Preparen! Apunten! Fuego!
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“look, he had even more crap left in him, and more piss, too!”
“Ha, ha, ha!”
Fidel’s men sometimes shot prisoners with blanks, just for the thrill of it, as a way of driving the prisoners mad and breaking them. And sometimes they shot over their heads once or twice before shooting to kill, or shooting to maim horribly.
In his trenchant short study, Che Guevara, the British historian Andrew Sinclair concludes that, during the guerrilla war, Che ‘discovered a cold ruthlessness in his nature. Spilling blood was necessary for the cause. Within two years, he would order the death of several hundred Batista partisans at La Cabana, one of the mass killings of the Cuban Revolution.’ Later too, after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion by anti-Communist Cuban exiles, all the survivors were summarily shot.
Eire’s memories of Che are not as rosy as Aleida’s, (p. 278)
Always dressed in his military uniform with the beret, the man who wants to do away with money. So is his chauffeur. I wonder if the chauffeur, a good Revolutionary, has dirty magazines. I’ll wonder about that until the day I die.
O’Hagan tells us,
In 1965, Che’s adventurism and ideological zealotry led him him to Africa, and an unsuccessful attempt at revolution in the Congo. From there, he returned briefly to Cuba, whence, increasingly estranged from Castro, he set off for Bolivia to begin his last and final guerrilla war. Of all the books written by Guevara, The Bolivian Diaries are the most powerful and affecting, not least because the ideological demagoguery of old has disappeared, replaced by a more stoical voice. It is a diary of struggle and hardship, of dismay and defeat, the antithesis of The Motorcycle Diaries, and, of course, not a story that Hollywood will ever tell.
Now we have a romanticized story coming to a cinema near you, telling us of Che’s “strength and tenderness”, along with articles from his loving daughter in the newspaper of record. No less obscene than the worst pornography, the lyrical and beautiful film’s become a Sundance Festival and Cannes Festival success. How ironic that the film synopsis reads “Their experiences at the colony awaken within them the men they will later become by defining the ethical and political journey they will take in their lives”.
It is estimated that Che Guevara sent to the firing squads some 15,000 Cubans. Untold number of people died in Cuba, Central America, Bolivia and Congo from his guerrila wars. The real number might never be known.
No movie will be made from their stories.