Adventurero Heroico: a review of The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara


We’ve all seen it, the iconic photo of Che Guevara, silkscreened on the T-shirt of a slouching teenager as a sign of a budding ideology or subtle form of protest against The World as he or she has come to inherit it. It was snapped in 1960 by Alberto Korda while Guevara listened to Castro’s oration at the funeral service of 136 people killed in an act of naval sabotage. Even converted to duotone, the implacable and determined expression is remarkable, the eyes gazing off toward a distant point of revenge and justice.

I’d heard that Ernesto (Che) Guevara was radicalized while riding a motorcycle around South America, visiting up close, in a way that only a motorcycle can do, the poverty, hardship, and exploitation of its proletariat. His eight-month journey on a Norton 500 (affectionately named La Ponderosa II—The Powerful One) with Alberto Granado, a doctor and specialist in leprosy, is captured in The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America, now turned into a major motion picture starring Gael García Bernal.

Guevara’s radicalization cannot be found in any specific moment but occurs over the trajectory of his journey. What is evident at outset is that he comes from a privileged life. At first, the two seem more interested in drinking and carousing than visiting leper colonies or talking to the working poor about their plight. In a typical scene, they get into trouble after drinking copious amounts of wine:

Chilean wine is very good and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance I felt ready for anything. It was a very cosy evening and we kept filling our bellies and minds with wine. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he’d been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely but then realized her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason and we had a bit of a barney in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her towards one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me and as I was pulling her she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor. As we were running towards the village, pursued by a swam of enraged dancers, Alberto lamented all the wine her husband might have bought us.

There are, however, moments when an innate sensitivity and political empathy toward the poor come through in the writing. Soon after that escapade, they meet and are invited to stay with a married couple, Chilean workers who are Communists, and Ernesto hears the man’s tragic story:

In the light of the candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features struck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife who followed him with exemplary loyalty, his children left in the care of a kindly neighbour, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

The experience leaves a deep impression on the young man. That night he gives a blanket to the couple and he and Alberto wrap themselves in their remaining blanket: “It was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent but also one which made me feel a little closer to this strange, for me anyway, human species.” Writing later about the couple, Ernesto makes clear his own budding political ideology:

It’s really upsetting to think they use repressive measures against people like these. Leaving aside the question of whether or not ‘Communist vermin’ are dangerous for a society’s health, what had burgeoned in him was nothing more than the natural desire for a better life, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose real meaning he could never grasp but, translated into ‘bread for the poor,’ was something he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope.

Guevara is a good writer. I read the book in translation (trans. Ann Wright) but the strength of Guevara’s voice rings through. He is articulate, possessing a broad vocabulary, funny, and perceptive. His powers of observation—essential for any writer of travelogue—extend to the landscape as well as the people he meets. At times, the sentences are lyrical and poetic, such as in this passage, where he personifies the Chuquicamata mountain that has been industrialized into a copper mine:

The mountains, devoid of a single blade of grass in the nitrate soil, defenceless against the attack of wind and water, display their grey backbone, prematurely aged in the battle with the elements, their wrinkles belying their real geological age. And how many of the mountains surrounding their famous brother hide similar riches deep in their bowels, awaiting the arid arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their entrails, spiced with the inevitable human lives—the lives of the poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths in one of the thousand traps nature sets to defend its treasures, when all they want is to earn their daily bread.

Guevara’s critique of the exploitative power of Capitalism is expressed in the language of war and personal suffering, both of Nature and humans, in a telling indication of the major themes that would later occupy his political life. He sees Capitalism as a plague on Nature and human society, a force that devours if left unchecked.

His critical eye does not stop with economics. In another passage, he shows distain toward the Church that dominates Latin American society:

In a moment of boredom we went to the church to watch a local ceremony. The poor priest was trying to produce the three-hour sermon but by then—about ninety minutes into it—he had run out of platitudes. He gazed at his congregation with imploring eyes while he waved a shaking hand at some spot in the church. ‘Look, look, the Lord hath come, the Lord is with us, His spirit is guiding us.’ After a moment’s pause, the priest set off on his load of nonsense again and, just when he seemed about to dry up again, in a moment of high drama, he launched into a similar phrase. The fifth or sixth time poor Christ was announced, we got a fit of giggles and left in a hurry.

Always there is a tone of understatement, a dry irony that runs the risk of appearing sanctimonious, but I would rather have a strong, personal voice in a travelogue than a weak, objective one. He does not hold anything back, even when describing the hygiene habits of the Native Chileans:

The somewhat primitive idea the indians have of modesty and hygiene means that, regardless of sex or age, they do their business by the side of the road, the women wiping themselves with their skirts, the men not at all, and carry on as before. The petticoats of indian women with children are veritable warehouses of excrement, since they wipe the kids with them whenever they have a bowel movement.

As shocking as this is, the most surprising aspect of The Motorcycle Diaries is that they don’t travel by motorcycle for much of it. The bike dies a dramatic death on page 44 of my edition, and they spend the rest of the journey bumming rides from truckers, travelling by foot, raft, and boat when necessary. In this way, the book is like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which documents Orwell’s self-induced months of hunger and poverty while squatting in Paris and tramping across England. And perhaps like Orwell, there might have been a desire in Guevara to purge himself of the privileged lifestyle in which he was raised, or at least open his eyes to another strata of society of which he had had only a passing familiarity and a superficial understanding.

They do visit leper colonies and are regarded there as heroes, more for their humane treatment than their medical treatment of the lepers. Where others fear and shun these people, Alberto and Ernesto mingle amongst them for several days, drinking and playing music together, and when they leave they shake the lepers’ hands, a gesture that in itself is more healing than any medicine the doctors can offer.

This is the picture of Ernesto that we get by the end of their adventure—a caring and principled young man ready to take the hippocratic oath, not the Guerrillero Heroico of the later portrait, the fighter who was ready to kill to incite revolution. For that, he would have to meet and travel with another man, not the affable Alberto but the militant Fidel.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a fun and easy read at just over 150 pages. There’s a lot of local history woven into the storyline, including a political history of the Incas, and anyone who’s interested in the history of South America would get something from this book. Readers who are interested in the biography of Che Guevara or the germination of South American and Cuban Communism would also enjoy it. But the star of the book is South America itself, the land and its people. Readers will get a strong sense of the majesty of the mountains, the rugged terrain, the Latin American architecture, the friendly and welcoming people. My edition provides a map with the route of their journey, and chapters are titled after the places they visit. My ultimate ride is down into South America and this book has only piqued my interest all the more for that adventure.