28th December 2004
SALLES', GUEVARA'S AND GRANADO'S MOTORCYCLE DIARIES:
A COMPARATIVE REVIEW
I first heard of Che Guevara as a 1980s teenager, from a friend who had been an exchange student in Mexico. Too young to understand Latin American politics, or for that matter any kind of politics, I didn't attach much significance to the Che story. But I was able to pronounce Che's name and connect his beret image with a short biography. My knowledge expanded after I lived in Colombia, and read Che's Motorcycle Diaries. I liked the book, but wasn't overwhelmed by it. Intrigued by the adventurous introduction of Che, however, I was interested enough to read more. Little by little, I absorbed the enigmatic Argentine, reading several biographies and three of his books. The recent Sydney premier of Walter Salle's cinematic adaptation of Che and Alberto's diaries gave an opportunity to see a purely Latin American interpretation.
Hero to some, villain to others, Che is a man who becomes more multifaceted the deeper you delve. Jean-Paul Sartre called him 'the most complete man of our age'. In the 1960s, Che had a CIA bounty on his head, and was blamed for inciting armed revolutions throughout Latin America that cost thousands of innocent lives. His motorcycle odyssey has not only spawned the movie and numerous biographical works, but two American authors, Patrick Symmes and Barbara Brodman, retraced his steps and wrote their own two-wheeler chronicles long before this film was conceived. Very much a man who lived by his own rules, Che was a seemingly valiant hombre who declared he was not afraid to die while still a student. A Che's enduring popularity is enhanced by the fact he died young, a hero to losing side of the Cold War. Che should be studied, if only to understand his motivations, though many have gone much further, elevating Che to an almost divine status. This is no doubt a result of his legacy of eloquent essays and efforts to deify him. Partly, too, a result due to the appeal of Che's unconventional life story. Che was tutored at home by his mother until age nine. He was a chronic asthmatic who smoked Havana cigars. A man who wore army boots and fatigues to UN forums. A hawk during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he spent his Sundays volunteering his labour, and loved poetry. Communist and chess player, rugby player and magazine editor. Inventor and patent holder of a roach insecticide. A mountain climber and economist. A man who wielded the surgeon's scalpel one day and a machinegun the next. A man whose final words, facing the firing squad, were 'Shoot, coward!'
But of these faces of Che you see little in the film, because it is restricted to a particular seven month period of his life. Based on Che and Alberto Granado's books, any discussion of the film's merit should begin by comparing it to the written record, bearing in mind the diaries themselves are not candid snapshots. The journey began in December 1951; Alberto's diary appeared in 1978, 27 years after the trip, and 11 years after Che was killed. Alberto's is a conventional journal, with daily entries. Che's 'diary', however, is really a memoir, with a few dates sparsely scattered throughout. Che's notes were written firstly on the road, then rewritten again by Che more than a year after he returned. The handwritten journal was later transcribed and edited by Che's second wife Aleida March de la Torre, published as Notas de Viaje well after Che's death. Che's biographer Jorge Castaneda identified at least one discrepancy between Aleida's account and passages published by Che's father which drew upon the same original notebooks. An expanded, newer translation has recently been published by Ocean Books; Che's daughter has stated the family 'edits without changing what he meant'.
The final page of Che's memoir contains a passage entitled An Afterthought, (titled A Note in the Margin in the Ocean Books edition) with the footnote that it was written after Che got home, and it is not clear in which country it took place. In it Che describes a mysterious night meeting with a stranger and in no uncertain tone describes his metamorphosis into a man 'ready to combat'. It is perhaps the most polemic and apocryphal part of the book; there is no corroborating passage in Alberto's diary. My own opinion is that the Afterthought happened. Critics would say the discrepancies and delays in editing and publication detracts from their frankness and accuracy; Che's later Bolivian Diary was the subject of much intrigue over whether it was a doctored instrument of propaganda.
Having read both Alberto's and Che's published diaries (in English), I think this is a valid but minor point. The diaries cannot mask their youthful enthusiasm, and contain plenty of improper behaviour. We can only guess at the full story, perhaps containing slurs and bawdy anecdotes, and hope that one day they become available. After all, the unedited diary of Anne Frank wasn't available for many years for similar reasons of prudishness. But really, would a few scandalous revelations obscure the overall trans-continental adventure? I doubt it. Whatever abridgement went on doesn't mean the diaries are not, viewed as a whole, credible chronicles. The two diaries were synthesised into a screenplay by Jos' Rivera and Walter Salles, who hired Alberto, now over 80 years old, as a consultant to ensure accuracy. The actors are said to have read the unedited diaries. By stroke of pure co-incidence I was in Iquitos during filming. I was disappointed to be informed that the film set was closed to the public. However, I did meet Dr Granado and his family one day at Iquitos' Quistococha Zoo. He was a jovial old fellow, though obviously a bit less energetic these days than he was in '52. Returning to Sydney I had to wait for the Australian release which came months later than the Northern Hemisphere, reading divided reviews on the internet, teased by frustratingly slow MPEG downloads from the official website. Then last week I saw Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton talking about it on ABC's At The Movies programme; the Australian release was imminent. Margaret awarded 4 stars out of 5, David gave 4'. I jumped on the internet and procured tickets to an advance screening at Leichhardt's Palace Cinema on the 8th of December.
Arriving at the Palace, I have never seen so many Che T-shirts in all my life; there was a door prize for the best Che costume. Middle-aged people were well represented in the audience - in fact I would say in the majority; foreign accents filled the air. Picking up our free Che poster and an envelope of political pamphlets, my brother and I entered the theatre. Inside the cinema a spokesman delivered a speech that was laudatory of Che, critical of Bush, Packer and Murdoch, and inviting everyone to Green Left Weekly's upcoming 'Revoluci'n Harbour Cruise'. Or, you might be interested in becoming a brigadista in the 'First solidarity brigade from Australia' planned for Venezuela. At a cost of around $4000 (mainly for the airfare) only die-hard socialistas need apply.
The spokesman didn't mention how much the political winds have changed in the 52 years since Che and Alberto made their journey. Thousands died in civil wars that were partly inspired by Che, who wrote guerrilla textbooks. Argentina lost a war with Britain, and more recently, a financial crisis that saw its peso-dollar parity evaporate overnight. The Chuquicamata copper mine depicted in the film isn't owned by foreign interests anymore, but CODELCO, a nationalised Peruvian company. Yet the indigenous people of South America still struggle on under much the same miserable conditions as they always have.
Finally the lights dimmed and the film was underway. The opening scenes show Che and Alberto packing their bags, planning over a map of South America, Che declaring 'I want to get laid in every country'. It soon became apparent that the full vocabulary of Spanish swear-words were to be employed, invariably translated into English as the F word. The viewer soon becomes desensitised, even enamoured by the vulgarities, as more often than not they are used without malice.
I won't spoil the show by telling what happens next. But I will note that the film contains plenty of omissions. Firstly, where is the episode where Che, caught in the middle of the night with a bad case of diarrhoea, defecates out the window sill onto their host's tin of sun-drying peaches, thence beating a hasty retreat? Or the scene where Che shoots dead his host's pet dog one night, imagining it was a puma? Also missing from the cinematic version is the passage in Alberto's diary where Alberto ignores a peasant woman's silence to fill his basket with cassava, paying her half the market price. The pair's run-in with the police in Colombia doesn't rate a mention. There are many other omissions. Even the map used in the promotional poster is misleading - it doesn't show that part of their journey was as stowaways on vessel off the coast of Chile. I guess Salles couldn't include everything in his film, cuts had to be made, and there are plenty of other un-altruistic acts portrayed by both protagonists, enough to blunt any alleged bias: Che emerges less than flatteringly from the Chilean dance hall scene. Tellingly, Che's Afterthought, viewed by some as the memoir's most dramatic passage, is absent from the film, perhaps because it is not corroborated by Alberto, and, as published, is not assigned to any particular location. Its omission removes the strongest revolutionary words in either book: ''I feel my nostrils dilate, savouring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, of the enemy's death; I brace my body, ready for combat''
There is one major departure from the diaries: the scene where Che leaves a party to swim across the Amazon - a feat he achieved in daylight on a different day, not the night of the party. So, all-inclusive documentary it ain't. But The Motorcycle Diaries admirably attempts to distil a true story (unlike so many Hollywood films these days.) For me, The Motorcycle Diaries is two things. Firstly it is highly visual film, an outdoor adventure tale shot in vivid South American countryside. The scenery is simply breathtaking. Full marks to Salles for shooting outdoors and on location, using local actors speaking lingua franca, the same way he did so successfully in Central Station Brazil. This film breathes life. The music soundtrack delivers as well as Salles' casting: an auditory odyssey that drifts through several republics, sampling a little of each.
Secondly it is the portrayal of the youthful adventures of one of South America's more intriguing personas. It is not essential nor even advantageous for the viewer to know of Che's later, more infamous deeds. Neither is this one of those films where you could say 'read the book first'. In fact the opposite could be advised. That Che was an enemy of capitalism is not covered in the film; Che is aged only 24. Those who choose to shout it down as sugar-coated hagiography forget that personalities like Guevera were ordinary people, with the same spectrum of human emotions as you and I. Friendship, anger, love, a sense of justice, and a hearty dose of humour. It is the portrayal of these emotions, especially during the pair's stay at the leprosarium, that is the film's strength.
As a film that entertains and informs, I give the Motorcycle Diaries the thumbs up. I found the 'Coca-leaf Communion' scene a little too drawn out, but the scene where he gives the destitute miner's wife his coat was very moving. It is not a History Channel vignette of Che, nor was it intended to be. 'Before he changed the world, the world changed him' says the promo. It gives some clues to the shaping of the man, by the Latin Americans themselves, but not the entire picture. For that you should read Casta'ega's or Anderson's excellent Guevara biographies (or, for Hollywood's take on Che, see the 1969 Omar Sharif flick Che!) Che's guerrilla activities are mentioned at the end when a brief summary flashes up on the screen. I could not help but note that the audience was deathly silent during these few seconds, in contrast to the roars of laughter during most of the film.
Although Salles' theme is that the journey was formative to Guevara's political beliefs, just how much of an influnce is a moot point. Che was also greatly influenced by his mother Celia, the rise of the Perons (he once wrote to Eva Peron, cheekily asking her for a jeep), and various other journeys he made through South and Central America. It is often overlooked that Che undertook a solo expedition in Argentina's northwest in 1949, aged 21, covering some 2500 miles on a bicycle with a bolt-on Cucciolo motor. He also kept a diary of this journey, incorporporated by his father into his biography Mi Hijo El Che. To my knowledge there is no English edition,* and with the current popularity of Salles' film, even the Spanish edition is scarce. Che also sailed on voyages to Brazil and Trinidad in the merchant marine in 1950. So it could be argued Che was an experienced traveller prior to his journey with Alberto. Later Che travelled Latin America a second time, revisiting Cusco, climbing Mexico's Mt Popocatepetl, exploring Maya ruins and witnessing Guatemala's civil war. No diary exists of that period, just a collection of letters and essays published in English as Back On The Road: A Journey to Central America. I am sure an entertaining sequel could be made about these additional adventures, along with his exploits as a guerrilla in the Congo and Cuba.
Watching the film, I was left with the feeling Alberto was the extrovert, Che the cautious one, not quite the same impression I had from reading the diaries. Salles' film concludes with a silent cameo of the real Alberto, now in his 80s, watching an old Venezuelan cargo plane bundle Che off down the runway. It is a fitting, realistic finale. But that is not the only connection with the real Che. Alberto's part was played by Rodrigo de la Serna, a relative of Che, whose full name was Che Guevara de la Serna.
Shuffling our way out of the cinema complex, we passed tables set up by Resistance and Green Left Weekly. Che T-shirts, badges, fridge magnets, and a selection of revolutionary literature by Che, Castro and others were for sale. Propaganda and paraphernalia: it was the leftie's field day. It made me recall a memorable passage in Symmes' book Chasing Che, where Che's ex-girfriend Maria del Carmen 'Chichina' Ferreyra, says of students looking at a Che poster: 'They don't even know who he was'. Maybe, but after seeing the film we all know a little more about Che's early life - and Chichina's - than any poster can tell us. That the Green Lefties managed to screen a copy of the film ahead of the major cinema chains represents something of a coup. I am sure Che would be proud.
And I am also sure Che, riding his Norton 500 in that great open road in the sky, would be pleased to know his film premiered in Norton Street, Leichhardt, before a full house, long after he died.
*Edit: There is now an English-language version of Mi Hijo El Che, published under the title Young Che: Memories of Che Guevara by his father (Vintage, 2008).
Glen David Short is the author of An Odd Odyssey. His reviews of Granado's, Guevara's, Symmes' and many other Latin American travelogues can be read by clicking here. Photos and Text ©2004 Glen David Short