Ever wondered what a revolutionary icon does on his gap year?
In 1951 twenty three year old medical student Ernesto Guevara and his friend Alberto embarked on an ambitious nine month journey around South America aboard their (less than) trusty motorbike ‘La Poderosa II-The Mighty One’. The pair rode, swam and hitchhiked up the west coast of Latin America, the 8000 mile journey taking them from the freezing snow capped mountains of Argentina to a leper colony deep in the jungles of Peru, on the banks of the vast Amazon River. This is the diary of Ernesto Guevara, the man who would go on to be called ‘Che’.
The Motorcycle Diaries defies categorisation. It’s a cocktail of a memoir, one part travel book, one part coming of age story with a dash of revolutionary rhetoric and a twist of poetry all served in a frosted glass through which we view a fractured Latin America. Ok perhaps I pushed the metaphor a little too far there but rest assured it’s an excellent read, often insightful and always enjoyable,Che proves to be a wonderfully irreverent narrator. The diary entries shift focus, literally line to line, as Che’s thinking darts from astute philosophical observation to the most basic everyday practicalities. To quote Guevara himself ‘in nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup-in total accord with the state of his stomach’, a statement with which , I’m sure, many adventurers can empathise.
Prior to reading this book I imagined Che a stoic, fearless revolutionary but at this early stage of his life he is an adventurous joker and a ladies’ man. In one town he talks of dancing with a man’s wife while the husband is passed out drunk ‘she was hot and clearly in the mood, I took her by the hand and tried to steer her outside’. Ernesto and Alberto are incredibly likeable men who show compassion and good humour in even the darkest moments. They also focus a huge amount of energy into chasing wine, women and a bed for the night. To add to his accolades of freedom fighter, cultural icon, doctor and masterful military tactician it also appears that Che Guevara was the original lad on tour.
Whilst reading these diaries it is easy to forget that this is the man who within 15 years will go on to lead a guerrilla revolution in Cuba, represent the country at the United Nations General assembly, and be executed by US backed Bolivian forces; his face becoming one of the world’s most recognised symbols of revolution .This is Che before his opinions were fully formed yet it’s one of the great pleasures of reading this book that as it proceeds we see Che developing an acute and profound awareness of the injustice around him and we become privy to more and more glimpses of the man he will become.
I’m not certain why, perhaps it is the poetic lyricism with which Che narrates his feelings and surroundings or the inclusion of letters he sends home to his mother, but this book leaves you feeling intimately connected with the man and with the journey.
Be sure to get an edition with the tender introduction by his daughter Aleida Guevara March.