Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: The Story of Che Guevara

Great Book
Che Guevara was powerful, charming, knowledgeable and a fighter, mentally and physically. TheStory of Che Guevara is a well written book about one of history’s greatest game-changers.

The author, Lucia Alvarez De Toledo, researched Guevara’s life for fifteen years – before she wrote this biography. Her writing credentials include her translated and edited work of Guevara’s father’s memoir of his son, The Young Che, as well as Che’s own Bolivian Diary, and she translated Travelling with Che Guevara by AlbertoGranado

Toledo paints Guevara as charming, smart and charismatic. It’s hard not to fall in love with Che once you reach the end of his thrilling life. Che’s story is told from when he was born on 14 June 1928 until his death on 9 October 1967.

Famous for his role in the Cuban Revolution it is fascinating to learn that Che was not Cuban. Another interesting fact is that Che, as he is famously known, is a nick name he got from his comrades while they were training for the Cuba invasion in 1955 while they were in Mexico.

He is quoted as saying “Che represents the most essential, the most loved aspect of my own life. I like it very much when people call me Che.” Toledo reveals that the name “Che” was used at that time to refer to Argentinians by Latin America – but it has since been ‘hijacked’ by the revolutionist. His real name was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.

Che’s life is inspirational. He didn't set out to topple governments and become a politician. He was a doctor from a family that lived well – he didn't have to put himself in the line of fire. He could have just taken the obvious route; study, qualify, work, get married and have children.

His militantly humanitarian concern for his fellow men is what lead Che into politics.

Che’s whole life reads like a man set out to take the route less used.  His mother is quoted as saying, “my son spent all his life trying to prove to himself that he could do all the things that he should not have been able to do”.

Che had asthma. He used a pump and when a severe attack hit him – he would be bedridden for a while. From a young age his parents encouraged him to play sports (even though that would have been discouraged). They wanted him to never feel that his illness was an excuse to living a full life.

Toledo insinuates in her writing that Che’s asthma played a big role in defining him. She writes that because of the severity of his chronic ailment, Che spent a lot of time immobile and it would be in those moments he would have thought that he could play victim or be a survivor.

“His strength of character made that easy: Ernesto did not choose victimhood. Once he had made his choice there was no going back.”

 In 1947 Che used his asthma to get out of National Military Service, which was compulsory. He got his summons and on the day of his medical he took a cold shower knowing it would set off an asthma attack. He was exempted as physically unfit. He didn't want to waste a year in military service, he wanted to study.  “For once my shitty lungs have done something useful for me”- he is quoted as saying.

Che was an avid reader and loved to travel. It was through his travels that he was exposed to the terrible conditions of a lot of people in Latin America. His first recorded trip was on 1 January 1950. He set out on a bicycle tour of northern Argentine. This would be the beginning of many trips that would ultimately lead him to Cuba.

It was on these trips were he exchanged his doctor’s services for accommodation, food or whatever need he’d have – that he understood the pains of Latin America. This aspect of Che would come in handy when Fulgencio Batista was overthrown as Cuban president and the country needed rebuilding. 

Although he was a high-level leader and highly respected – he would go out in the fields and put in hours of hard labour with the rest of the workers. Not once in his narrative do we see a man who let power drug him.
Che also shared knowledge. Wherever he found illiteracy he would embark on starting literacy programs – teaching those around him to read and wright. He also taught chess.

Che Guevara’s most powerful leadership quality for me was when he admitted failure. It was 1965; he had left Cuba believing his services were now needed in Congo. “This is the story of failure” were his opening words in his narrative of the Congo campaign.

“I have learnt in the Congo, there are mistakes I will never make again, others might be repeated and new ones made. I leave with more faith than ever in guerrilla warfare, but we have failed. My responsibility is great; I will never forget the defeat nor its precious lessons.”

It’s not every day one hears a great leader admitting failure and hence this is a lesson that most sticks out for me from Che’s life. I can only imagine how hard it was to accept that things have failed, let go and leave. It’s only human to want to fight to the very end and in this case – this is a man whose whole life was about beating the odds. But he accepted defeat and moved on to his next mission.

Unfortunately it was that next mission that he would meet death – a fate he was not scared of.  9 October 1967 Che Guevara was no more. Search the net and pictures of his lifeless body are easy to find. But regardless of how he died – it is how he lived that will forever be a lesson for those who choose to read up on him.

There is so much to learn about Che and the politics of Latin America in this book. Strength, courage, bravery and a love for education is what defines the legend; Che Guevara. 

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