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El Novel

It is now sixteen years since the image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s riddled, bare-chested corpse—the open eyes curiously alive and unglazed, the heavy brows skeptically arched, the lips parted, showing the line of lower teeth—was flashed across the world. For many the photographs instantly became an icon of a crucified demigod, symbol of their thwarted aspirations and implacable rage. Others no doubt responded with revulsion, curiosity, or a sense of righteous triumph, but none who saw the pictures is likely to have forgotten them. For several years after Guevara’s death a large body of literature flourished—diaries, collected speeches and letters, reminiscences, works of hagiography and denigration;1 by the mid-Seventies, however, interest had subsided, and the cult image was relegated (as far as the Western world was concerned) to a cabinet devoted to mementos of the previous decade. In what Guevara himself helped to denominate as the Third World, the image has undoubtedly retained much of its former potency.

Now, in an immense, audacious, and often brilliant first novel, Jay Cantor has used the Guevara record as a staging area for launching his own richly imagined account of the childhood, heroic labors, and mortal passion of the guerrilla god. In its use of fact, its deliberate rejection or alteration of fact, and its invention of material designed to look like fact, The Death of Che Guevara brings into acute focus the dilemmas confronting any writer who undertakes a historical novel dealing with a figure as recently dead (and as ideologically charged) as “El Che.”

The organization of the novel is complex. Part I is prefaced by thirteen densely packed pages entitled “Dates.” Starting with the communist uprising in Shanghai in 1927 (the year before Guevara’s birth), “Dates” provides a year-by-year chronicle of the convulsive events of the twentieth century as they might have been seen and interpreted from a Third World, revolutionary standpoint, with special emphasis upon Latin America. Here is a sample:

1954 Batista again declares himself President of Cuba. (He takes the commas out of letters, reties his tie. He plays canasta for hours, sitting on the edge of his bed. He has the television stations show more horror movies, his favorites.) Perón begins an attack against the Catholic Church and its power. There is an insurrection in the city of Algiers against the French. The insurrection is quelled. (Certain theoretical proofs must be made in practice.) The war against the French will continue in the countryside for seven more years. In Vietnam Dien Bien Phu falls, overrun by the Communist forces. (The country surrounds the city: a children’s nursery rhyme.) Perón makes all labor decrees of his government binding on the now powerless unions. General Castillo Armas, leading his army of CIA-trained mercenaries (their symbol: the cross and the sword), overthrows the nationalist government of Guatemala. 1955 Batista, hoping to increase his popularity, establish some legitimacy, declares a general amnesty for political prisoners. Fidel Castro, a free man, goes to Mexico, Costa Rica, and the United States, to organize Cuban exiles and prepare an armed landing. In a suburban house near Mexico City, he meets an asthmatic Argentine doctor, Ernesto Guevara. They talk through the night….

After this drum roll, which takes us through 1965, Part I, “Criticism, Self-Criticism,” begins. Its structure is contrapuntal. The primary setting is the Isle of Pines, off the Cuban coast, where in the summer of 1965 Che Guevara is waiting, in quasi exile, for Fidel Castro to decide what to do next with his troublesome lieutenant, who has disappeared from public view and is rumored dead. With Guevara is his “comrade, bodyguard, keeper,” Walter Ponco, a “small strong black man” who had joined Guevara’s column during the Sierra campaign in Cuba seven years before. Just beyond the house where they are staying, they can see a group of prisoners working in an orange grove. But are they prisoners? Walter insists that they are young communist volunteers; still later, they are identified as madmen—and the ambiguity is never cleared up. Guevara and Ponco talk at length about Castro and about Che’s relationship with him. Then Ponco, who (having been a poor, fatherless peasant boy) is fascinated by Guevara’s past (“I’m jealous of your childhood”), asks Che to write the story of his life. From that point through the remainder (nearly 300 pages) of Part I, scenes from Guevara’s past life, beginning in Argentina in 1928, alternate with scenes on the Isle of Pines, where Walter comments upon Che’s story, teases and questions him about it, and even makes his own “contribution” to it. And still there is no word from Castro.

When I was a child,” begins the first section of Guevara’s autobiography, “I choked on the air; I coughed; I tried to spit my pain out into my hands in hard knots of dark slippery sputum. My asthma began before my memory begins, and so I can never know its root.” One theory—advanced by Ernesto Guevara, Sr., in furious arguments with his wife, Celia, is that the mother caused the condition by taking the infant Ernesto to a yacht club on a chilly, overcast day and there left him on the beach to become blue with cold while she swam obliviously in the ocean. Whatever the origin of the asthma, the struggle to deal with its crippling effects becomes the central issue in the little boy’s life and in his relationship with his high-strung, idealistic parents, both of them unconventional members of the Argentine upper middle class. The father, who must administer the dreaded anti-asthma injections into the choking child’s buttocks, wants Ernesto to become a doctor and work for the good of mankind; the restless, self-dramatizing mother identifies with radical causes and lets her son grow up without discipline, without even toilet training. Defying his condition, the boy as he grows older organizes a soccer team and even plays rugby with an asthma inhaler in the top pocket of a sweater worn under his jersey. Once, when the inhaler drops out and is lost during a scrimmage, the boy comes close to death.

The transformation of young Ernesto Guevara into “El Che” takes place in several stages. At first it was accompanied by (and to some degree deflected by) an infatuation with the teachings of Gandhi. But from the start, Guevara has trouble reconciling an intellectual devotion to the principle of nonviolence with the impulses toward violence that constantly assail him in his dealings with fools and hypocrites. Fresh from medical school, he travels around South America and is appalled by the corruption, poverty, and apathy he everywhere encounters. Where are the leaders who might say no to all this with the force of their souls? In Bolivia, in 1953, the turbulent, impatient, and idealistic young man quarrels furiously with that country’s revolutionary leaders and bureaucrats who have, he believes, betrayed the people they are supposed to serve. His radicalization is completed the following year in Guatemala, where he witnesses the overthrow of the revolutionary Arbenz regime. From that time on, he sees the United States as the imperialist enemy that must be fought on every possible front. The Gandhian phase ends abruptly for Ernesto when (so he tells Walter Ponco) he kills—almost gratuitously—one of the CIA-trained mercenaries invading Guatemala City. He performs the act shortly after receiving word that his father has died in Argentina, and the killing itself is presented as part of Ernesto’s ongoing dialogue with the father who had wanted him to become a doctor in order to help mankind.

I brought my other hand up to steady the pistol. Count to eight, you said helpfully. You became my ally, Father, in the death of your voice, your moralism, your hopes for me. Count to eight, now gradually let out your breath as you squeeze. Make that tin can dance, Ernesto!…The man we were going to kill passed near the front of the cathedral’s high stone pillars, the huge molded bronze door with its reliefs of suffering bearded saints. I felt a warm flush on my skin, like a blanket. My back and chest were covered with sweat.

I could see his smile now.

Why should he live, Father, when you are dead?

The trigger jammed against my finger, and that small halted gesture jolted my body. The safety was on. I flicked it off….

It is in Guatemala that Ernesto first hears of the charismatic Cuban revolutionary, Fidel Castro. The next year the two men meet in Mexico City, and the rest is, as they say, history: Ernesto, now “Che” (“buddy” or “pal”), sails for Cuba with Castro on the famous ship Granma, is nearly killed in the battle that wipes out most of the little band of invaders, and survives precariously in the Sierras until at last the rebellion gains momentum and sweeps Che and his daring and loquacious leader toward Havana.

Told vividly in the first person, with much scrutiny of motivation and action, Part I—Ernesto’s “psycho-autobiography”—is, I think, the most enthralling section of the novel. It is also the most complex in connecting biographical fact and novelistic “truth.” After the account of Ernesto’s shooting of the mercenary, Walter Ponco, in the next Isle of Pines scene, confronts the autobiographer with the indubitable fact that his father not only did not die in 1954 but indeed lived to visit Cuba years later, when Ponco met the old man. Why then did Ernesto invent his death? Embarrassed at being caught out, Ernesto attempts a rationalization: he had symbolically killed his father.

…I killed my father inside myself so I could kill the mercenary. You see?”

Ponco shook his head no, but wouldn’t look at me.

Freud had it wrong,” I tried again. “We don’t see the state, the enemy, as our fathers. Our fathers, inside us, the family, they work for the state, you see? We must uproot them first.”

Ponco shook his head….

A further question arises. Did the historical Ernesto Guevara kill a mercenary in Guatemala in 1954? In my (admittedly incomplete) reading of the Guevara literature, I can find no evidence that he did. Ponco, in reprimanding Che for his cavalier attitude toward fact (and he does so on more than one occasion) warns the reader that Cantor, too, is willing to disregard fact for the sake of a “higher” moral or psychological or aesthetic “truth.” Ponco also becomes a collaborator in Che’s story, adding paragraphs in Guevara’s style to the autobiography and even contributing a two-act play that represents his fantasy version of what happened on the famous night when Castro and Guevara first met.

Part I ends with the conclusion of Che’s “exile.” Fidel Castro has approved the idea of a guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, which is to serve as a focal point for a revolutionary uprising throughout South America. Letters arrive from Régis Debray, the French Marxist strategist (and another son of the haute bourgeoisie), analyzing the situation in Bolivia and making suggestions for the campaign. Still another letter arrives—from Ernesto Guevara, Sr., announcing the death of his wife. Once again Che is liberated for action.

  1. 1

    For an analysis of this literature, see the two articles on Guevara by John Womack, Jr., The New York Review, January 28, 1971, and February 11, 1971.

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