Book review: “Che — A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson Previous item Book preview: Pat Reardon... Next item The Loop: How the “golden...

Book review: “Che — A Revolutionary Life” by Jon Lee Anderson

Nikolai Metutsov was an important guy in the Kremlin.

He was an aide to Party Secretary Yuri Adropov (who later ruled the Soviet Union as General Secretary), and he was responsible for overseeing relations with non-European socialist nations.

In early 1964, Metutsov was in Cuba to figure out just whose side Ernesto “Che” Guevara was on. At the time, there was a savage tug-of-war between the Soviets and the Chinese over who would have priority in international Communism. Metutsov’s job was to get Che, one of the three top Cuban leaders, to toe Moscow’s line.

The problem, though, as the Russian explained decades later to Jon Lee Anderson, was that he was “falling in love” with Che.

Make no mistake, this was no gay flirtation. Metutsov was falling in love with the man who was seen by Socialists around the world, including those in the Soviet Union, as the perfect image, the personification, of a revolutionary.

“He had very beautiful eyes. Magnificent eyes, so deep, so generous, so honest, a stare that was so honest that somehow, one could not help but feel it…and he spoke very well; he became inwardly excited, and his speech was like that, with all this impetus, as if the words were squeezing you.”

Heading back to Moscow, Metutsov knew that, as he put it, Che was tainted by Maoism and Trotskyism. But, as he later explained:

“I had the impression that he knew that his portrait already hung on history’s walls, the history of the national liberation movement.”


“A virile embodiment”

In fact, a photograph of Che, taken on March 5, 1960, by Alberto Korda in Havana, would become — and it still remains today — the image of revolution across the globe.

Described as the world’s most famous photograph, it has hung as a poster on countless walls and has been worn on the chest of numberless t-shirts. It has been the subject of at least three movies and seven books.

In his masterful 1997 biography of the legendary rebel, Che: A Revolutionary Life, Anderson writes that, in the photo,

Che appears as the ultimate revolutionary icon, his eyes seeming to stare boldly into the future, his very face symbolizing a virile embodiment of outrage at social injustice.

“This sense of sharing”

Yet, as Anderson’s far-reaching book so well shows, Che wasn’t simply a pretty face.

He lived — and died — the life.

Anderson is clear-eyed in his effort to see Che in the context of his Argentine upbringing, his search for a direction to his life, the Cuban revolution, world Communism, his ill-fated foray into rebellion African-style, and his doomed attempt to foment an uprising in Bolivia.

More important, though, is the intimate story that Anderson tells throughout Che — about what made his subject tick. He wants to know what Che did, but, even more, he wants to know who he was. Consider this insight from early in the rebel’s career:

It is hard to escape the sense that Che’s deeply felt desire to rid himself of his “I” and to become part of a group derived from the inherent isolation imposed by his asthma. Happily for him, he had found that fraternity he sought…

Indeed, in the Sierra Maestra, there was times when he was completely helpless, and his dependency on the support of his comrades became quite literally a matter of life and death. And, yet, in this communal life of guerrilla war, no one suffered alone; the interdependency wrought by the need to survive was mutual. One day, it was Che who needed help; it would be another man’s turn the next. Quite possibly, it was this sense of sharing, more than any other factor, that gave rise to his intense personal reverence for the ethos of guerilla life.

A beardless Che before the Cuban revolution (left) and in disguise while travelling around the globe to assist revolutionary efforts in Africa and Bolivia.

Che the man

Anderson’s insights into the character of the revolutionary, based on his vast research, are presented throughout his book. There are many. Here are some:


As a child:

Indeed, by the age of five, Ernesto had begun to reveal a personality that echoed his mother’s in many ways. Both enjoyed courting danger, were naturally rebellious, decisive and opinionated, and developed strong intuitive loyalties with other people.


As a teen:

They would evolve and mature in the coming years, but the character traits that later acquired legendary dimension in the adult Ernesto Guevara were already present in the boy. His physical fearlessness, inclination to lea others, stubbornness, competitive spirt, and self-discipline — all were clearly manifest in the young “Guevarita” of Alta Gracia.


A description of Lenin:

He also copied out a portrait of Lenin from Ducatillon’s book that described him as a singular historical personality who “lived, breathed and slept” the socialist revolution, subjugating all else in his life to the cause. The passage is remarkable, for it presages to an uncanny degree the descriptions made of Ernesto “Che” Guevara by his future revolutionary comrades.


As a young man:

In his early twenties, Ernesto stood out socially as an attractive oddball whom others found difficult to categorize. Indeed, he defied definition. Eccentric in his appearance, he was nonetheless oblivious to ridicule. At a time when youths of his social class dressed impeccably in ties, blazers, pressed slacks, and polished shoes to avoid the dreaded stigma of being misidentified as a working-class immigrant’s son, he wore grimy windbreakers and odd-fitting, old-fashioned shoes that he bought at remainder sales.


Penniless and hanging out with similarly poor friends in Guavaquil in Ecuador:

He confessed to Andro Herrero that he had never previously enjoyed this experience of unconditional comradeship, where everyone shared what they had without misgivings and faced common problems together, while discussing everything under the sun…True camaraderie, he told Andro, had eluded him. It was something he had always craved but felt lacking in his own family, as fragmented and overrun with adopted outsiders as it was….A few years older than Ernesto, Andro understood his remarks as expressing his feelings of emotional exclusion, and felt instinctively that he was a lonely young man in great need of affection.


From a letter to his mother after she told him not to get involved with Fidel Castro and the Cuban rebels:

“I am not Christ or a philanthropist, old lady, I am all the contrary of a Christ…I fight for the things I believe in, with all the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don’t get nailed to a cross or any other place….Not only am I not a moderate, I shall try not ever to be, and when I recognize that the sacred flame within me has given way to a timid votive light, the least I could do is to vomit over my own shit.”


An account of his actions during an ambush in which he was wounded, shortly after the rebels landed in Cuba:

In contrast to many of his comrades — who either lost their nerve completely or responded as soldiers, firing back at the enemy while moving toward cover — Ernesto lay back, cooling meditating on the prospect of his imminent death.


As a guerilla in the Cuban hills:

Che was no emerging as an audacious, even reckless guerilla fighter. Evidently eager to prove himself and to make up for his sorely felt error of losing his rifle…, he routinely volunteered for the most dangerous tasks….He had begun to show a prosecutorial severity with guerrilla newcomers, especially anyone from the city…He was also developing a deep hatred of cowards, an obsession that was soon to be one of his most renowned and feared wartime traits.


As a rebel leader:

There was a Calvinist zeal evident in Che’s persecution of those who had strayed from the “right path.” He had wholeheartedly embraces “la revolucion” as the ultimate embodiment of history’s lessons and the correct path to the future. Now, convinced he was right, he looked around with an inquisitor’s eye for those who might endanger its survival.


As a military leader:

But Che was different, and they knew it. He demanded more of himself, so he demanded more of them, too. Each sanction he meted out came with an explanation, a sermon about the importance of self-sacrifice, personal example, and social conscience. He wanted them to know why they were being punished, and how they could redeem themselves. Naturally, Che’s unit was not for everyone.


After the victory of the Cuban revolution:

By the spring of 1959, it has become pretty obvious to most observes that Ernesto “Che” Guevara was a highly unusual individual who confounded common stereotypes. He exercised an almost mystical influence on others and had begun to gather a loyal coterie of disciples around him who, like Borrego, were followers of “Che,” rather than any political credo. Yet, far from being sectarian, he dealt respectfully with many of the defeated former army officers at La Cabana during the transition to rebel army control — even as he sent others to die before the firing squad.


A Russian talking about Che’s visit to Moscow:

“He was highly organized. In that sense he was not at all Latin, rather more like a German. Punctual, precise, it was an amazement to all of us who knew Latin America. But the other members of his delegation were really undisciplined.”


As a disciplinarian:

This was “Che the Implacable,” Cuba’s revolutionary avenging angel and ultimate political commissar, demanding the impossible of those around him, but above reproach himself because he lived up to his own sever dictates. He was respected and admired, despised and feared, but nobody was indifferent to him. Summing up the unusual personality of his late comrade, Manuel Pineiro said: “Che had something of the missionary in him.”


Che as a non-Cuban:

Indeed, for all his posthumous mythification in Cuba, throughout his years there, Che stood out in contrast to almost everyone around him. Some Cubans saw this as a disdain for their national culture. He didn’t like parties — a Cuban national pastime — and rarely invited people to his home, or went to theirs, for that matter….In a country where the people loved to dance, and sensual Afro-Caribbean rhythmic music was the heart blood of the culture, Che like to listen to tangos, but was ton=deaf and didn’t dance. On a Caribbean island with beautiful beaches, to which Cubans traditionally escape during the hot summers, Che didn’t swim. In a country where the native rum is the time-honored means of relaxing and passing the time with friends, Che didn’t drink…. Above all else, Cubans love to eat roast pork, while Che preferred a good grilled beefsteak. Cubans have a sense of humor that is straightforwardly bawdy and scatological; Che’s was ironic, witty, and acid.


The recollection of a Cuban intelligence official:

“Toward the end, Che knew what was coming, and he prepared himself for an exemplary death. He knew his death would become an example in the cause of Latin American revolution, and he was right. We would have preferred him to remain alive, with us here in Cuba, but the truth is that his death helped us tremendously. It’s unlikely we would have had all the revolutionary solidarity we have had over the years if it weren’t for Che dying the way he did.”


Che and Fidel

There is one thing missing from Anderson’s Che, but I’m not sure it’s the author’s fault.

The Cuban revolution succeeded to the extent it did because of the over-size characters of Fidel Castro and his right-hand man Che. Yet, Anderson’s book never discusses how they related to each other, what they thought of each other, what they said about each other.

Given how exhaustive Anderson’s research was, it seems clear that, if those questions could have been answered, he would have dealt with them.

However, in the 1990s when he was researching and writing his book, Che was a mythologized Cuban hero and Fidel was still the supreme ruler of the nation. Anderson notes in many places throughout Che how certain records in the hands of Cuban authorities were closed to the public, documents that might have muddied the waters of the national narrative that the leaders had composed about the revolution and its aftermath.

Nothing has been so essential a part of that national narrative as the vision of Fidel and Che working in solidarity for the revolution and the nation. So, it’s not at all surprising that no one close to Fidel or Che would talk on or off the record to the author about the two men. No one would want to risk the wrath of Fidel.

And, it certainly appears, Fidel wasn’t talking to Anderson — or, as far as I can tell, any other writer.


Social change and power

Even so, Anderson does have a two-page section, about a quarter of the way into the biography, in which he compares the personalities of the two men, a dual portrait that probably says a lot about why they worked together so well.

Castro, Anderson notes, was a political animal, captivated by the lure of power, with “an innate knack” for the horse-trading and cunning required by politics, a man who could lie artfully.

By contrast, Che saw politics “as a mechanism for social change, and it was social change, not power itself that impelled him…He lacked the chip on his shoulder that Castro evidently possessed and had converted into a source of strength.”

While Castro was born out of wedlock to an immigrant and his mistress, Che’s family “were blue bloods, however bankrupt, and he had grown up with the social confidence and sense of privilege that come from knowing one’s heritage.”



Anderson writes that both men had outsize egos, and adds:

In large groups, where Guevara tended to hang back, to observe and listen, Fidel Castro was compelled to take over and be recognized as the authority on whichever topic was under discussion, from history and politics to animal husbandry.

Because of his asthma, Guevara was all too aware of his physical shortcomings, whereas the burly Castro recognized none in himself. Castro was not a natural athlete, but felt he could excel in anything if he set his mind to it, and as a result he often did. Above all, he had the urge to win.

And, Anderson writes, the two men had much in common as

favored boys from large families and extremely spoiled, careless about their appearance, sexually voracious…[and] possessed of an iron will and imbued with a larger-than-life sense of purpose.

What is clear, above all, is that Che was happy to let Fidel have the power as long as he was able to follow his dream of revolution with missionary-like zeal.

Fidel had a long life. Che died young. I don’t think either would have complained.

Patrick T. Reardon


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