The Motorcycle Diaries are a collection of travel musings by Che Guevara. 23 years old and a year out from finishing his medical training, he ventures across South America with his doctor buddy Alberto Granado. Guevara makes clear in the opening that the “person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil again. The person who reorganises and polishes them, me [Che], is no longer, at least I am not the person I once was.” Had he not go on to live a revolutionary life, this diary would lost a lot of its lustre. I likely would have given up reading it early on were that the case. This book unveils the seeds that sprouted a modern day mythology.
I can’t say that I’ve met anyone even remotely like the 23-year-old Che that wrote this travel diary. He is immensely reflective throughout, though I suppose most travel diaries are by their nature. Nobody embodies the spirit of a dreamer as he does; “explorers with our history and stature would rather die than pay for the bourgeois comfort of a hostel.”
The travel notes start off with a declaration: “This is not a story of heroic feats.” It is, however difficult to see him as anything but. His revolutionary future aside, he displays a heroism on multiple occasions. From giving up his blanket for the couple the met on the side of the road, to standing up for the Indians that he met along the way.
At each juncture, he is empathetic towards the plight of the proletariats. This journey is littered with the remnants of the crusades waged by conquistadors of old. Little did he know at the time, the conquistadors of new, the US-backed alliances would surge. Fuel for the revolutionary life he went on to lead. Traveling freely, “like a hobo”, appeared liberating. This is an account of the real world, like a baby growing up. It was far from the middle-class childhood he had in Argentina. It reads like an origin story, one of transformation, detailing where the spark for revolutionary fire came from. The start of the coming-of-age story of the 20th centuries most iconic revolutionary.
Che’s writing becomes unmistakably effusive whenever he talks of nature. This contrasts his unforgiving stance on conquistadors and conquerors that have plagued the continent. He finds that the “virgin forests are so compelling for spirits like ours that physical impediments [asthma and mosquito bites] and all nascent forces of nature only served to stimulate my desire.” It reminds me of the Buddhist concept of Dharma: the truth about the way things are, the unseen order to our world. In this case, Che seems to have a healthy respect for the natural order. This respect translates well to the Marxist leanings he is famous for adopting.
I enjoyed the addition of the post-script, Che’s speech to medical students in Cuba post the Cuban Revolution. It put into perspective the journey as whole. So I will leave this review with an excerpt from that speech that summarises his transformation.
“I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky and I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon and, consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls into my hands. And I see, as if a great exhaustion smothers this fresh exaltation, I see myself, immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa. I feel my nostrils dilate, savouring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the enemy’s death; I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a scared space within which the bestial howl of a triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.”
This is a good read only if you are fascinated with Che Guevara. I probably would not have finished it otherwise. It reads like the start of the coming-of-age story of the 20th century’s most iconic revolutionary. If you find yourself at a crossroads, it is sure to resonate.