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; 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 …