In the brief preamble to his 'The Motorcycle Diaries', Che Guevara sets us straight by telling us to read the work as a record of a journey undertaken by the man he "once was". This statement is, in fact, a direct reference to the author's method of working, which was to make extensive notes whilst travelling and then to transcribe and polish the narrative up to a year later. Forewarned is forearmed, however, and 'The Motorcycle Diaries' is possibly not a book for aficionados of the iconoclastic Che, the one that has adorned countless posters and T-shirts since his untimely death trying to spark off a new Vietnam in Bolivia in 1967.
In 'The Motorcycle Diaries' we can still find Che the adventurer and , moreover, there is clear evidence of a heart sensitive to the plight of the poor guasos (Chilean peasants) and other indigenous South American Indians encountered along the way. There are also signs that Che was beginning to awaken politically. (See, for example, his references to the material and cultural differences between the Chilean copper mine foremen - "blond and efficient, insolent administrators. ..the Yankee masters" - and the poor native miners . ) However, it is a far lighter , younger soul that we get in this work, one not yet fully locked-into revolutionary idealism.
'The Motorcycle Diaries' is actually a blow by blow account of the journey Che and Alberto Granado undertook across five Latin America countries between 1951-52. The journey occurred during an extended sabbatical from Che's medical studies at the University of Buenos Aires. (He did, in fact, manage to complete the six year course to become a doctor of medicine at this institution in just three years).
The preferred mode of travel for Che and Alberto's adventure was a Norton 500cc motorcycle, nicknamed La Poderosa II ( literally, the Powerful One II). This is, of course, where the title of the book comes from. Actually, though, La Poderosa II breaks down very early into the journey. A fact that, everything considered, proves to be something of a mixed blessing since, following this, the pair have to make their way by doing odd jobs and hitching rides with strangers and generally having a far richer experience.
In parts 'The Motorcycle Diaries' reads bawdy, irreverent and even laddish. In Chile, for example, Che manages to get roaring drunk (several times) and make an ill received pass at a mechanic's "randy" wife. Also, in the same country, Che wakes in the middle of the night and, mistaking his hosts' beloved pet Alsation for a vicious Chilean Puma, shoots the poor creature dead. Additionally, Che and Alberto win many friends and fans among the indigenous Indians by showing off their footballing prowess on the pampas. Che's favourite position, by the way, was to keep goal.
The book does contain, though, some extremely fluent and interesting passages, such as, for example, the one that describes a visit by train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. This particular essay was initially published in Panama in December 1953. On the way to Machu Picchu Che notes, with a medical student's concern, how the native Indian women show little deference for personal hygiene, wiping themselves on their skirts after defecating. Upon arrival he ruminates about the discovery of Machu Picchu by the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham and, furthermore, sees the ancient Inca ruins as a place of "pure expression'", a monument to a once great people of the Americas. The fallen walls are, he says, full of 'evocative treasures' beyond the sensitivity and understanding of the Imperialist Yankee tourist.
Although, to reiterate, 'The Motorcycle Diaries' is possibly not, in my opinion, a book for those looking directly for the revolutionary hero of the Sierra Maestra (the battle hardened, politically mature and moralistic centred Che that marched with Castro triumphant through Havana in 1959 does, in fact, seem a million miles away at times from the still evolving soul revealed in this journal), I would still thoroughly recommend the book to a wide audience. 'The Motorcycle Diaries' is sometimes funny, sometimes coarse, yet often surprisingly insightful and lyrical. Read it as the ribald travel exploits of two young amigos into the heartlands of Latin America during the early 1950s, or read it for its moments of aesthetic fluency. On the back of this work, Che Guevara could always, I believe, have found a job as a travel writer of some note if other more cruel and glorious destinies had not called.