Sunday, August 13, 2006

Travelling with Che

[Motorcycle Diaries - Part II]

[For those who are fatigued reading my endless travellogue, this is to assure that I am back to books, where I started]

I had written about Motorcycle Diaries in a post a while ago. This was after having read Che's book and seeing the movie. However I chanced upon a companion book to Motorcycle Diaries recently at Sankar's in Bangalore. This book is written by Che's companion in the journey Alberto Granado. Compared to the book by Che, which is rather insipid, this book makes a much more interesting reading. Apparently Alberto was also advising the people who made the movie. Che's book was published in 1967 and Alberto's only in 1978!! That is a long time to be in the cans for a journey that was undertaken in 1951-52. The translator's note says that Alberto had an advantage over Che as he could revise the book and look at the journey with some hindsight. The irony of it all was that the English translation of Alberto's account was published only in 2003. He was possibly resurrected by the film makers and thus the book could also see the light of the day.

The book is insightful and presents a different view of what one perceived from the movie and Che's book. In the movie Alberto is depicted as a happy-go-lucky type and Che as much more intense. The possible reason that it is much more to much more with the future of Che [and the journey seen in retrospect] than his own role and outlook in the journey. Alberto was six years older than Che, had completed his education and was dissatisfied with what he was doing then. He was possibly more mature and ruled with the head while Che was possibly more spontaneous and fiery. These are lines from the introductory part of the book:

"I am not very happy with this state of affairs. An inner voice is telling me to pack a few things and set out to see America. The years I spent in Chanar, with my dream of doing something for the lepers, quelled my desire to seek new horizons. But now that I've been transferred from a place I loved, and where I was loved, and sent to a hospital where everything is cold and calculating, where first they ask whether a patient can pay for tests and only later whether he needs them or not, I need broader horizons.

In contrast Che is still studying medicine. He is daring and willing to take risks. Possibly for Che this was an adventure. When Alberto suggests a road journey to discover the geography Ernesto's reaction is described in the following words:

"I told him my plan, he said he didn't give a shit about the future I saw for him with a doctor who, though brilliant, was trapped in the confines of the medical trade. And with that, Ernesto flung himself into a war dance, whooping and yelling, and the pact between us was sealed...

Clearly the journey was more of a curiosity for Che, while it was much more purposeful for Alberto.
For instance in the very beginning of the journey they stay with Tamargo - a friend of Alberto, who was with him at the university for five years. Alberto is greatly disappointed that the person who was active in democratising the students' union is now
"completely absorbed by the loathsome society around him... charging more for lab tests than they are worth.... and seems to take morbid pleasure in going against the dictates of his conscience..."

That does not mean that Alberto does not have a sense of humor depicted in the movie. Take this gem from the book - describing a character he says

"He was a man, but everything about him, his voice, hair, breasts and the way he walked was that of a woman. He must have more Xs in his chromosomes than a mathematics text book.

Though Alberto did not get into guerilla warfare, and possibly was not involved in activism that was evident in his school days, it is clear where his heart was. While his career after the trip was largely oriented towards the service of science mostly in Cuba, the book has enough indications where his orientations were. For instance in one place he says about one Mr. Molina Lucco:

"he wants to go to Argentina - to earn money, he says - but doesn't realise that he'll never get rich with that heart of gold of his, because individual wealth is nothing but exploitation of man by man"

Unlike Motorcycle Diaries, this book has a thick description of their visit to the Chuquicamata mines. It has a good description of their working conditions, their chat with the union workers, the ill effects of working in a mining operation and the pitiable conditions that they work in while the "Yankees" are enjoying themselves with golf courses, special schools and having houses that are not pre-fabricated. So though Alberto sets out on the journey largely as a tour to understand the state of health - largely related to leprosy, he, alongwith Ernesto discovers much more about people and much more than about their health. He says
"Life is a great teacher and shows you more than a hundred books". In a way Alberto's narration is much more reflective and involved comparted to Ernesto's which is much more matter-of-fact.

This book does not seem to acknowledge the $15 story that was there in the movie. Possibly that was a part of the improvisation. Neither does it acknowledge what is shown in the movie as a whore wooing Alberto with the story of Bufeo. He however seems to admit: "The dark young beauty is still raising havoc among the ugly sex with her frequent, daring changes of attire, her cheek, her fluttering lashes. Fuser and I are no exception to the rule. I myself am particularly susceptible to the tropical beauty..."

Both undertook the same journey, one kept inept diaries but moved quickly into hard core action.
The other kept deeply reflective notes and stayed on with a constructive role in the field of medicine. But the latter could possibly not have happened but for Ernesto's own actions. The journey had a lasting but differing effects on both of them. Of course Alberto recognises this difference somewhere in the book. In Machu Picchu, after reading a book with Simon Bolivar's letters Alberto tells Ernesto:

"You know what I'm going to do? I am going to marry Maria Magdalena. Since she's a descendant of Manco Capac II, I'll become Manco Capac III. Then I'll form a pro-Indian party, I'll take all these people to the coast to vote, and that'll be the start of the new Tupac Amaru revolution, the American Indian revolution!"

Ernesto looks back and asks:
"Revolution without firing a shot? You're crazy.."

At this moment Alberto remembers what Ernesto had said almost a decade before this incident during the student days while they were secondary school students where Alberto was arrested for holding a protest demonstration along with others belonging to the students' union. Alberto asks Ernesto and others visiting him to organise high school students to give a call for their release. At that moment Ernesto says:

"Go out and march unarmed so they can beat the shit out of us? Not on your life. I'm not going without a piece."

Clearly there was a significant difference between the reflective, silent Ernesto Che Guvera, and the more articulate Alberto. Physically Che was haunted with Asthama and those attacks would make him weak and vulnerable, but that did not break his innate belief in "armed revolution". Ernesto, who after the Cuban revolution went on to become the Governor of Cuba's central bank could have remained there if he wanted, but chose to take to action once again, only to perish in Bolivia. Alberto continued to contribute with his own work, without compromising on the overall sense of equity. This is what he writes [referring to the film] as a note to the English translation of the book:

"But the most important fact, and the real reason that prompted me to include this preface, is that in each of the countries where the film was shot, it was done using local bit players, workers and advisers for each category, thus creating jobs at a time when there is massive unemployment as a result of the neo-liberal policies of those countries' governments.

And a further cause for satisfaction is the fact that all the installations built at Santa Maria - the electricity supply, the meeting rooms, the pathways made of timber, the distribution of running water, all the grid that provides lighting to the village, and all that was built for the film - remain in place for the enjoyment of the local inhabitants, and as a result will enhance the living contitions of each and every one of them.

So it can be said that history once again proves that one should be true to one's principles and beliefs."

No wonder the book is dedicated to Che.


Inkk said...


Came here through a long series of links. Looks like you have been having a lot of fun! Hope you are doing well...will enjoy going through the blog.

An ex student

Oka the irrepressible said...

Hello Sir :)
How have you been doing? Are you still using your iima email id?

Prat said...

Ohh that was such a brillaint film. Skill get all smiles when I think of the part where he jumps into the amazon to celebrate his Bday on the other side.
Revolutionary to the core, no doubt.

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