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El Novel

Part II, which is prefaced by another drum roll of dates, begins on the Isle of Pines in 1968. The Bolivian adventure has ended in disaster; Che Guevara has been dead for seven months. Ponco, who accompanied Che to Bolivia, has, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick, survived to bear witness. Now, as archivist of the campaign, he must assemble the various documents: Che’s journal of the campaign, his own journal, the diaries of the other men. Ponco is in a bad way, thin and wasted, unable to eat without vomiting. He broods over his love-hate relationship with Che, who has led him close to death:

He has stolen my appetite. He has stolen the rest of my life…. From now on my life will be to tell his story. I can see the days to come: I give a talk to a group of Young Communists who are doing volunteer work in the orange groves, telling them how important the spirit of sacrifice was to Che…. I will dedicate schools named after him, and launch literacy campaigns…. No wonder I want to vomit all the time!… He almost killed me! I curse him, but when I do the curse comes back and withers my own body.

The story that Ponco-Ishmael tells is given mostly in the form of journal entries, beginning in the fall of 1966 when the Cuban guerrillas arrive in La Paz—Che disguised as a middle-aged Uruguayan businessman. It is a story of grinding hardship and heroic endurance; of revolutionary hopes beaten down by the hard facts of the Bolivian situation; of a mission led by a man who compares himself (in an actual letter) to Don Quixote but who also partakes of the monomania of Captain Ahab. The suffering, towering figure of Che dominates the narrative, whether confronting the head of the Bolivian Communist party (who demands that Che surrender leadership of the campaign in return for the Party’s help) or dealing with “the Frenchman,” Régis Debray (who visits the camp and is subsequently captured by the Bolivian army), or discussing the Indians with Tania (the East German revolutionary who joins the guerrillas and is subsequently killed). Tortured by asthma, for which there is finally no medicine left, often too weak to walk, he pushes on with his starving, dwindling band while the Bolivian army grows in strength and tactical skill and all attempts to win the support of the impassive and enigmatic Indian population prove futile.

Although the journals quoted in the novel are fabricated, the events they describe follow roughly the actual course of events recorded in the surviving journals of Guevara and three of his followers: Rolando, Braulio, and Pombo (the nom de guerre of Harry Villegas Tamayo, the apparent original of Cantor’s “Walter Ponco”). As in Part I, Ponco breaks in with his own commentaries and contributions (among them a marching song called “The Chili Pepper,” a short screenplay, and a scatological funeral-masque for Che with such characters as Big Ass, Scum Mouth, etc.); Ponco is also able to add his own reminiscences of the campaign to amplify the record of the journals.

I want to quote at some length to show how an entry in Che Guevara’s actual journal undergoes not only expansion but metamorphosis in Cantor’s recreation:

February 10

Posing as Inti’s assistant, I went to talk with the peasants. I do not think the comedy was very successful because of Inti’s timidity. This peasant is typical: capable of helping us, but incapable of foreseeing the dangers involved and therefore potentially dangerous. He told us numerous things about the peasants but was not willing to join us because of a certain insecurity. The doctor treated the children, who had worms, and another who had been kicked by a mare, and we left. (The peasant’s name is Rojas.)2

Cantor changes the date and proceeds as follows:

3/16/67: Inti and I have tried a few talks with the peasants in the region near the river. Unsatisfactory comedy. We don’t frighten them certainly, but we don’t impress them much either. They listen, and hang their heads, and listen, as impenetrable as stones. Or they reply evasively, as if they hadn’t understood our goals. But they’ll sell us food—if the price is right…. The answer is more victories: our violence will give these stones ears.

There has been one exception among the local peasantry, a man named Honorato Ispaca, who lives near the river. He invited us into his home, a thatched hut. There was little light, and a great deal of smoke inside. On the floor a child clutched his stomach, and moaned, a high breathy sound, terribly plaintive….

The boy told me that an animal jumped around inside him, and that every time it jumped it hurt him terribly. His face was down to bone, his eyes enormous. Blue and red and green candles had been placed by his head—the work of magical curers—and white candles by his feet, from the church….

An old man sat in a wooden chair near the boy’s head, opposite the father, chanting words in Quechua, rocking back and forth….

Ispaca, kneeling, spoke. The child had become ill because of a quarrel he had had with a man nearby. The man had loaned him some money for drinks at a festival, and when Ispaca had grown sober again, he couldn’t pay his debt….

Ispaca sobbed, holding the sides of his own face. His enemy must have gone to one of the men who know such things and had him put an animal in his son’s stomach.

From his chair the old man stopped chanting to listen to Ispaca and nod in agreement. “There was an owl hooting all night,” the old man said, smiling, as if he were gratified by the bad omen—for it made sense of things, displayed a coherence to the world, however unfortunate for Ispaca’s son.

And a dog barking,” Ispaca added…. “Five of my children have died,” he said, “and it was always this way beforehand.”

These stories sickened me. There was, I told him, no magic. His son did have an animal in his stomach, a worm. It might have come in food, or it might have entered through his son’s feet, because the boy had no shoes….

And on for several more pages. At one point Che, in disgust, writes: “They must be forced to enter the twentieth century, to give up these stories that reconcile them with their humiliations, their children’s deaths.”

It is in scenes such as these that Cantor’s powers as a novelist are most striking. Again and again he takes a skeletal fragment from his source and fleshes it out into an episode full of dramatic intensity and thick with scrupulously rendered detail that convinces—almost stuns—the reader with its seeming authenticity. If The Death of Che Guevara were as successful in its larger perspectives as it is in its embellished parts, Cantor would have written a truly formidable book. But the novel is burdened, I think, by such a multiplicity of events, with such a throng of briefly encountered names and faces, that little momentum (as opposed to impact) is achieved. The various song-and-dance acts introduced by Ponco seem intended to leaven this dense mass, but such expressionistic devices are not, I think, Cantor’s forte. The problem is most acute in Part II, where the format of the diaries results in a fragmented effect that even the ever-growing prospect of catastrophe fails to overcome.

The figure of Che dominates the action but the novel’s tragic or epic ambitions are not fully realized. For one thing, Cantor’s imaginative identification with his main character is so complete as to produce a certain myopia. Does Cantor intend Che to seem as neurotic as he is heroic? The ever-present asthma, the highly charged relationship with both parents, the early repudiation of the bourgeois world and the laserlike intensity of Che’s subsequent hatred of it—these suggest a psychological profile that Cantor refuses to complete; the parts remain discrete, and the reader is left to make deductions rather than to respond to a fully realized character.

Even Ponco’s extensive comments on his leader provide inadequate perspective or objectification. The other characters too—the parents, Fidel Castro, the various companions, Ponco himself—have little fictional self-sufficiency or independence; they exist primarily for their impact on Che Guevara or their reaction to him. Though Cantor assigns to each of them an abundance of arresting and appropriate characteristics, he seems unable to grant the final gift of fictional autonomy.

Similarly, the novelist holds the reader so close to the point of view—indeed world view—of Latin American revolutionists that other political perspectives never emerge with any clarity. The experience of something approaching total immersion in an alien element is both fascinating and instructive—and no doubt salutary for North Americans inclined to ignore or shrug off what goes on “down there.” But eventually questions arise. What adjustments or correctives to Guevara’s vision of the world does Cantor, as a political novelist, wish us to make? When Che says that the Bolivian peasants “must be forced to enter the twentieth century,” are we to regard such a statement as intolerably arrogant or simply as a properly revolutionary response to ignorance and superstition? How are we to assess Guevara’s (and Castro’s) assumption that Bolivia (which had just chosen a president in a relatively free election) was ripe for revolution—as a tragic miscalculation or as megalomaniac folly?

Are we to look upon the results of the Cuban revolution as anything less than positive in view of all evidence to the contrary? What significance is to be attached to those workers in the orange groves on the Isle of Pines? How are we to respond to Ponco’s growing incoherence and to the breakdown in the recital of dates and events at the end of the novel, the lapse into gibberish that occurs when the catalog of terror and outrage at last records the evacuation of Pnom-Penh by the victorious guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge? Is this intended to suggest a horrified recognition that revolutions can become monstrous?

Again all sorts of deductions can be drawn—or not drawn. Perhaps an ambivalence of response is exactly what Cantor intends, but he provides no real indication that such is the case. Though ostensibly partisan, his own perspective remains ultimately obscure—and blurs the focus of the novel.

It is, of course, the newness, indeed rawness, of the subject matter that makes such questions of tone and perspective seem more urgent than they would in the case of a historical novel by Scott or Stendhal or Yourcenar. The Death of Che Guevara is clearly the work of an unusual literary intelligence. It will be interesting to see what direction this gifted writer will take now that his imagination is no longer held hostage to either the cult or the heavily documented history of “El Che.”

  1. 2

    Daniel James, ed., The Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara and Other Captured Documents (revised edition, Stein and Day, 1980), p. 111.

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