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24th Augusat 2004 2004

Che Guevara: The Motorcycle Diaries

It's just been made into a movie, so Che Guevara's journey around South America on a Norton single is all the rage right now. But is it really worth reading?

Che Guevara: The Motorcycle Diaries - From AmazonTaking our copy of this book from the shelves to remind myself about it, I observed that the spine of the cheap paperback was still largely intact. The front cover was scuffed and obviously the first third or so of the volume had been read, but the remaining bulk of the book looked as if its pages had never been seen by human eye. Odd, given how much reading we do.

These are the letters and diaries of a 22 year old Ernesto Che Guevara, translated by Ann Wright who lived in Argentina for several years. Her translation is informed by her expertise and the knowledge she gleaned from a doctorate in Cuban history, but the diaries can't be treated as a primary source of historical information. They weren't 'discovered' until Che Guevara needed a back story, until there was a purpose to their publication, and I have a strong feeling that the experience of later life may have embellished the
adventure somewhat.

Interesting bit of social commentary: this is the cover the American market gets - no beards or red stars here, thank you very much...The basic story is that Guevara journeyed with his friend Alberto Granado from Buenos Aires down the Atlantic coast of Argentina, across the Pampa, through the Andes and into Chile, the north to Peru, Columbia to arrive in Caracas. Legend has it that it is on this trip that Guevara discovers his sense of self and his relationship with Latin America - in his personal archive in Havana it is described as; 'the extraordinary change which takes place in him as he discovers Latin America, gets right to its very heart and develops a sense of identity which makes him a precursor of the new history of America.'

Guevara had already ridden 4000 miles around Argentina on a moped, and so was used to the rigors of penniless (...pointless?) travel on two wheels. This time he would tackle the journey on La Poderosa - 'the powerful one'. A 500cc Norton single might not seem quite so powerful today, but then, he was used to riding a moped.

...and here's an older version of the uk edition. Or is it a newer edition?Not that the bike really has much to do with the story. This is not a motorcycling book, despite the title. There are a few entertaining incidents, like this one where the pair encountered deep sand dunes: 'The bike, with its badly distributed load, kept leaping out of control and spinning over. Alberto fought a stubborn duel with the sand which he insists he won. The truth is that we found ourselves resting comfortably on our backsides in the sand six times before we finally got out onto the flat...

'Setting off again I took over the controls and accelerated to make up for lost time. A fine sand covered part of the bend and, wham: the worst crash of our whole expedition. Alberto came out unscathed but the cylinder trapped my foot and scorched it, leaving an unpleasant souvenir for a long time because the wound didn't heal.'

But the scanty information about the bike itself makes this a frustrating read for anyone who's looking for detail. It's not written or edited by a motorcyclist, so although you can understand that the boys were having a torrid time you can't actually figure out why. They were, apparently, always having to 'fix the bodywork with wire'. Then; 'one of the steering columns broke and the gearbox was smashed'. Punctures happened daily - as did accidents - the kickstart broke, the lights didn't work, a loud noise in the dark turned out to be the frame breaking (pardon?)... all this plus boys' own sleeping under the stars while stoned and suffering malaria-type escapades. Think of Swallows and Amazons on mescalin with a motorbike and you're probably near the mark.

Swallows and Amazons on mescalin with a motorbike.

So it was little surprise to discover that after 33 pages (or less than two months) of riding the Norton it was effectively destroyed and abandoned in Chile. Thereafter the journey was accomplished by almost every other means of transport going. And now I understand why I didn't finish this book first time around. There's a stubborn refusal in the narration to accept any form of responsibility for what was happening around them; 'without warning the bike suddenly veered sideways and threw us off' is pretty typical. Yup; motorbikes are known for having minds of their own.

Yet the boozing and carousing and self-indulgent post-adolescent posturing give way to some half decent prose every now and then:-

'The stars streaked the night sky with light in that little mountain town and the silence and the cold dematerialised the darkness. It was as if all solid substances were spirited away in the ethereal space around us, denying our individuality and submerging us, rigid, in the immense blackness.'

Yeah, I could go for that.

But if you compare Ernesto's rambling, ramshackle nine month journey to, say, the 7500 mile ride across Africa which was accomplished in the 1930s by Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron on a Panther combo (immortalised in The Rugged Road by Panther Publishing), then there's an inescapable conclusion which slaps you in the face.

Che Guevara really was a bit of a wuss.

Rowena Hoseason

Che Guevara: The Motorcycle Diaries

  • Published by Perennial, ISBN 0007172338
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