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.
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:
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.”
December 8, 1983