September, 29 2008
Che was fated to the mythic. Even his birthday attached him to a long tradition of popular struggle: he was born on Bastille Day, the commemoration of the opening of the French Revolution. [Some doubt that this was his actual birthday; his parents might have picked it to disguise a pregnancy that began before their marriage]. In life, he was larger than life. Handsome and brave, an intellectual with a gun and machete who was at the same time able to talk easily about love for humanity: all this enhanced his appeal. He becomes iconic with the 1961 picture by Alberto Korda. It went from the pages of Revolución (April 16) to posters across the planet. Three decades after its first appearance, I bought a hand-printed poster from a left-wing bookstall in Caracas' Central University. The students who sold it had an air of the guerrillero heroico among them as well. The same year as Korda's picture flew around the world, Jean-Paul Sartre published a brief book on Cuba. He marveled at the Revolution's youth. "These young people form a discrete cult of energy, so much loved by Stendhal. But don't think that they talk about it, that they theorize it. They live energy, they exercise it, they invent it, perhaps. They prove it with its effects, but they don't breathe a word about it. Their energy manifests itself." Che embodied energy, and it is this that was seized upon by young people who made him an icon, and it is what sustains his special attachment in the hearts of the young. Youth sees in this forever youthful revolutionary the spark that sustains them in unsettled times.
Spain Rodriguez' lovely graphic biography, Che (Verso, 2008) begins with the ubiquitous images, and the confusion around them. In response to the lack of depth behind the image, Spain offers his book - a tribute to the life of Che. [No surprise that this book will sit beside my copies of the two volume graphic biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., by the Fantagraphics author, Ho Che Anderson]. There's a light touch to the drawings, which take us through the greatest hits of Che's life. Little is left out: the motorcycle trip around South America that introduces this young Argentine college student to the full range of suffering and struggle in his continent; the experiences with inequality in Central America; the importance of Hilda Gadea in the growth of Guevara's understanding of politics [she was a member of the Marxist wing of the Peruvian ARPA party]; the meeting with the Cuban exiles in Mexico; the years of the Sierra Maestra and the Revolution's victory; the years in government in Cuba; the years back in the armed struggle in Africa and then, finally, Bolivia. One problem with biographies is that they tend to put their protagonist at the center of everything, making it seem as if he or she was the progenitor of all good events. It is Che that institutes the land reforms in the liberated areas, it is Che that starts the literacy program, it was Che who trained the militia that saved the day at the Bay of Pigs: there is a Forrestt Gump quality to his iniquitousness. It is of course the case that Che pushed and supported the land reforms and the literacy programs, and that he was instrumental in the leadership of the militias and the volunteer movements, but he was also a part of a movement. In 1962, Guevara wrote an essay in Cuba Socialista which pointed out his own view of the role of the cadre, the people's leader and "backbone of the revolution": "We should say that a cadre is an individual who has achieved sufficient political development to be able to interpret the extensive directives coming from the central power, inhabit them, and convey them to the masses; a person who at the same time also perceives the signs manifested by the masses of their own desires and their innermost motivations." Guevara consistently criticized his own performance, his own mistakes, and those of cadre around him. The basic point of Man and Socialism in Cuba was to emphasize the importance of the idea that a socialist morality must always have within it compassion and honesty. Che was indeed an extraordinary symbol of the panache and determination, of the intellect and dexterity of the Cuban Revolution: but his extraordinariness was not at the expense of his own basic humanity. If he is portrayed without his warts and without his capacity for self-criticism then he is raised to too high a standard for the rest of us mortals.
None of this should take away from the wonders of Rodriguez' graphic biography (there is one earlier graphic book on Che, Sergio Sinay and Miguel Angel Scenna's 1977 Che for Beginners, but Rodriquez' visual quality and sophistication far surpasses the older book). It is fitting that Che's graphic biographer would be the creator of Trashman, Agent of the Sixth International, the urban guerrilla who took on Amerikkkan fascism. Trashman made his appearance in 1968, the year after Guevara's death, and he became a familiar figure in the U. S. New Left. Which is why, perhaps, Verso had Sarah Seidman and Paul Buhle write the afterword to the book (Buhle, a veteran New Lefter is also one if its main historians - who has edited a new graphic history, illustrated by Gary Dumm and written by Harvey Pekar on Students for a Democratic society; Seidman, a student at Brown University, is doing her Ph. D. on visual iconography in the Americas). Seidman and Buhle offer a very useful sense of the role played by the image of Che in the U. S. New Left. But that framework disappointed me. Che's image has a global reach, and that global image is not the same in each place. Fernando Diego Garcia and Oscar Sola's 2000 Che, Sueño Rebelde is an example of the kind of visual archive that circulates in the Spanish-speaking world (there is also an English, French and German translation). Estelle Tarcia's excellent 2003 essay analyzes the Che image in two contemporary Bolivian novelists (Edmundo Paz Soldan's Suenos Digitales, 2000 and Juan Ignacio Siles del Valle's Que el Sueno era tan grande, 2001). Children in Cuba's classroom recite the pledge, "Pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che." Stencils of Korda's photograph can be found on the walls from Vietnam to Peru. Scholars and activists continue to read Che's work, not only on the tactics of struggle, but also on economics (Carlos Tablada Pérez's very useful El Pensamiento Económico del comandante Ernesto Che Guevara, 1987, won the Casa de las Américas prize, and is now available in several languages). I wish the book had ended with an analysis of the enduring global influence of Che's life, and image on revolutionaries and not just on those who use the Korda picture on vodka bottles.