Tuesday, June 03, 2008


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There are only two things tacked to the office wall of the English Department at my university: a 2006 calendar, and a poster of Che Guevara.

Kind of a strange coincidence, because I'd recently finished reading a paperback copy of Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara by Jorge C.Casteneda. I picked it up in Tokyo because I knew that Steven Soderbergh's new film of Guevara's life starring Benicio Del Toro was about to play at the Cannes Film Festival, and I wanted to refresh my memory of exactly who Guevera was, what he stood for and what he died for. (I read another biography of Che, by Jon Lee Anderson, but that was years and years ago.)

So how does somebody whose life was terminated in Bolivia, years after successfully helping Fidel Castro overthrow the corrupt Bastita government in Cuba, before unsuccessfully trying to instigate a similar revolt in the Congo, end up on a poster in the least revolutionary place imaginable -- a university office in Japan?

Che Guevara's likeness has become the wish, the hope, the focal point for anybody who wants to create a change in themselves, or the world, even if they don't know what that change might be, or even who Che truly was.

Somebody posted this poster of Che on a wall because it stands for something vaguely heroic, and daring, and revolutionary. Something that one can't find on a campus snug as a bug in a rug in Yokohama.

So who was Che?

Good question, and one that Castenda's book does an admirable job of answering -- as much as one possibly can give an answer to what is, essentially, an unanswerable enigma.

Guevera, an Argentine medical student from relatively middle-class origins who wandered around South and Central America for a period of years, observing the poverty, gradually becoming politicized by the class inequities, until fate or destiny or just plain luck had him ultimately meeting Fidel Castro in Mexico, where he joined Castro's crazy plan to overthrow the Cuban government.

A plan so crazy that it actually worked, and that resulted in an Argentine doctor becoming one of Cuba's most favorite sons.

Why has Guevera endured?

I think it's because he failed. He attempted to liberate the Congo, only to end up defeated, in despair, starving, underestimating and completely uncomprehending the entire political and social situation of that distant, difficult land. Castro sent him into Bolivia only because he feared Che would be killed if he ended up back in Argentina, Guevera's preferred locale for the next insurrection. In Bolivia, too, Che was undermanned and out of his league, attempting to start a revolution that the people did not want and that was nowhere near feasible, let alone possible. If he had not gone to the Congo, and had not gone to Bolivia, he might have lived on in perpetuity in Cuba like Castro has done for the past forty years since Che's death, a leader revered (or feared) by all.

But that wasn't Guevera.

Guevera was a revolutionary who needed a revolution, and if there wasn't one available, he would make one, and if he couldn't make one, he would die trying. The fact that the Cuban revolution succeeded was, in and of itself, almost miraculous, making all involved somehow more than human; the fact that Che's other attempts failed only elevated him Guevera higher, as only death can do.

So a poster on a wall, a face on a t-shirt, his mug on a mug: Che, the commercial entity. Che, becoming what he always loathed, a symbol of capitalistic excess run amok. Che, who died for his beliefs, however misguided, now the backdrop for an album cover.

People can look at his face and imagine that there is something more for them than this little life we try to make our own. Somewhere, in some place, there is a jungle, and in that jungle there are men, and those men, however few, are attempting something glorious. Che's beard and beret seek out that within us which yearns for a similar destiny, but settles for paychecks and decaf.

For me, though, the most fascinating parts of Casteneda's book were not the chronicles of his revolutionary years, when he became a legend, but the earlier ones, before Che became 'Che', because that was when we can see a boy become a man.

A typical tale, of course -- childhood to adolescence, and youth to maturity.

What makes Che's life so remarkable is its unlikely path. What looked like wandering eventually evolved into purpose. What resembled aimlessness was, instead, the slow and steady accumulation of, if not wisdom, at least intent. He wandered and looked and listened and judged. (Always judging, Che was.)

As someone who has also somewhat meandered for the past few years, I felt myself wondering as I read about the whims of fate, and chance, and destiny, and despair. Had Che stayed in Argentina, he most likely would have become part of the ordinary world that he later despised with a ferocity unmatched by any other. (And yet, had he stayed, he of course would not have become Che.)

His death at the age of forty is actually misleading, because his years were full and rich, varied and intense. Chronological time almost cannot be applied to his ferocious psyche, so rich is its reach. He wanted a mythic life and a noble end. All his spontaneous yet careful searching brought him towards a violent conclusion that somehow satisfied an inner longing he barely registered, even to himself.

Yet, it is in Che's early years that I sense the acute power of myth we all long for.

On the wall in my office, on the mug at your desk, on the t-shirt of your nephew strides his later self, defiant and intense. When I look at his face as a child, surrounded by school chums, I sense a different soul. One who wants more than what he has, but is acutely unsure if the world will accomodate his outrageous demands, or provide the formula he needs to cure the ailments of an unfortunate planet.

Looking back from the vantage of history, you can stare into that boy's face and sense that this is a child who will leave everything behind for the promise of nothing. The indomitable human will, which Che believed could solve any and every dilemma. You can also discern the blank slate upon which we all begin. We begin, we move, we end. All the details in between are either destiny or chance.

In Che I sense what we, the human species, could all become, were we to branch out far enough. It leads to despair, and disillusionment, and death. In its randomness it also leads to a path waiting to be found, should we only stay true. The one tread by no other but ourselves. (Can random journeys, in fact, edge us closer to our destinies? Is all of life a circle that leads us back to ourselves, no matter how circuitous the route? These are the questions Che's story asks, should you read between the lines and take off his t-shirt.)

And still, there is that picture, of him as a boy.

He is but a child and yet everything is there, the future almost tangible in its absence, ahead of him. Just up ahead. A revolution in a far away country he does not even know exists awaits his older, unlikely, presence, barely twenty years down the line. Another life, at home, a safer life, tugs his heart in another direction. He ultimately chooses the other way, the longer way, and becomes a deity in death.

And an oversized poster on an office wall in Yokohama.

For a mere boy from Argentina, an unlikely destiny, perhaps, but no more so than mine, or yours. We are not so different.

He looked for what he needed to find, as do I. As do you.

The future, tangible in its absence.