Easy Riding to Revolution – Review of The Motorcycle Diaries
By Thomas Riggins
The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey has also been made into a major motion picture. I am only dealing with the book. It was written by Ernesto Guevara (he had not yet become "Che") from notes he made when he was 23 years old and traveling from Cordoba in Argentina to Caracas in Venezuela in late 1951 through the summer of 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on the latter’s motorcycle La Poderosa II – which vehicle broke down and was discarded early in the trip (in the south of Chile) leaving both young men as vagabonds for the remainder of their journey.
The book is an enjoyable and brisk read. The adventures of the two young men, Guevara, a year away from graduating from medical school, and the slightly older Granado, a biochemist specializing in the study of leprosy, as they make their way up the Pacific coast through Chile to Peru and then inland to Cusco, the Amazon and on up to Bogota and finally Caracas by means of hitching rides, buses, steamships, a raft on the Amazon, and various other modes of transport, is an engaging tale.
But what makes it particularly interesting is the hints the book contains of the future "Che." It is this aspect on which I want to comment. The first seventy or so pages are devoted to describing the journey and the problems encountered along the way. But social commentary then begins. It first turns up when Guevara encounters a dying women in Valparaiso in early March of 1952 – three months into the trip. The woman is poor and suffering from diseases she cannot afford to treat, and of course, she can no longer work.
In her plight, Guevara sees "the profound tragedy circumscribing the life of the proletariat the world over." This leads him to the following reflection, somewhat mild considering what will come later. "How long this present order, based on the absurd idea of caste, will last is not within my means to answer, but it’s time that those who govern spent less time publicizing their own virtues and more money, much more money, funding socially useful works."
The two leave Valparaiso for Antofagasta by sea as stowaways on the freighter San Antonio. A hint of the travels of the future Che may be read into Guevara’s musings during this trip: "There we understood that out vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world. Always curious, looking into everything that came before our eyes, sniffing out each corner but only ever faintly – not setting down roots in any land or staying long enough to see the substratum of things: the outer limits would suffice." I wonder if a clue to the tragedy of Quebrada del Yuro is here foreshadowed?
A few days after they arrive in Antofagasta they make it to the great copper mine of Chuquicamata. Here Guevara meets communist workers. At this time the Communist Party was illegal and repressed. Communists were imprisoned, denied the right to vote and many had just disappeared "and said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea."
"It’s a great pity," Guevara writes with reference to a worker he had met, "that they repress people like this. Apart from whether collectivism, the ‘communist vermin,’ is a danger to decent life, the communism gnawing at his entrails was no more than a natural longing for something better, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose essence he could never grasp but whose translation, "bread for the poor," was something he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope." Needless to say, workers at Chuquicamata were in a living Hell.
It is interesting to note that the 1952 Chilean Presidential elections were about to take place. One of the candidates was Salvadore Allende. The winner was Carlos Ibañez del Campo who was progressive and said he would legalize the Communist Party – which happened in 1958. "The biggest effort Chile should make," Guevara notes, "is to shake its uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back, a task that for the moment at least is Herculean, given the quanity of dollars the United States has invested here and the ease with which it flexes its economic muscle whenever its interests seem threatened."
I wonder if there may not be something subconsciously autobiographical in Guevara’s comments about the conquistador Valdivia. "Valdivia’s actions symbolize man’s indefatigable thirst to take control of a place where he can exercise total authority. That phrase, attributed to Caesar, proclaiming he would rather be first-in-command in some humble Alpine village than second-in-command in Rome, is repeated less pompously, but no less effectively, in the epic campaign that is the conquest of Chile." Caesar aut nihil.
From Chile the two friends head into Peru where they encounter the problems of the indigenous peoples. They soon make it to Bogota and find Colombia, then as now, the most repressive country of their tour. They finally end up in Caracas where they go their separate ways. Guevara flies to Miami for a few days and then flies back Buenos Aires and returns to his family in Cordoba. He is almost, but not quite yet "Che" – but he does see the future. "I see myself," he notes on the last page of his diary, "immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa."
The Motorcycle Diaries
By Ernesto Guevara
New York, Ocean Press, 2004