The Motorcycle Diaries is not a “coming-of-age” story as it has been described by a number of commentators.
When Che Guevara took off on a motorcycle journey across South America he was not a teenager; he was 23-years-old and therefore already “of age.” In my view, this book has nothing to do with coming-of-age issues, rather it is a “hippie discovers communism” kind of story.
The Che Guevara that we meet in The Motorcycle Diaries is a hippie who drifts from place to place without any coherent plan. He is alienated from society. He sees the ill effects of materialism and repression in every direction. He thinks that it is the responsibility of other people to provide him with food, shelter, and even booze. He has no sense of hygiene—at times he does not wash for days and is inclined to live in most filthy and hopeless conditions. He is incapable of making any effort to improve the quality of his life.
In late 1951, Che Guevara and his friend, 29-year-old Alberto Granado, set off on the motorcycle they call La Poderosa (The Powerful One) with no aim but to wander aimlessly across South America. During their journey of more than 8000 kilometres lasting many months, they behave like a pair of filthy freeloaders and create chaos and nuisance for everyone who puts up with them. Quite often, they end up dirtying the living environment of their clueless hosts.
“We were put up by some Germans who treated us very well. During the night I had a bad case of runs and, being ashamed to leave a souvenir in the pot under my bed, I climbed out on to the window ledge and gave up all of my pain to the night and blackness beyond. The next morning I looked out to see the effect and saw that two meters below lay a big sheet of tin where they were sun-drying their peaches; the added spectacle was impressive. We beat it fast.”
In the book Guevara does not express the desire of becoming a tyrant or a mass murderer. He is too much of a shiftless hippie to be a mass murderer, but it is clear that he is a man in quest for a purpose in life. He needs a cause in the name of which he can declare a war on anyone and anything that antagonizes him.
Instead of being offended by poverty and pestilence, he seems to thrive in it. This is Guevara’s diary entry in Chile:
“As if patiently dissecting, we pry into dirty stairways and dark recesses, talking to the swarms of beggars; we plumb the city’s depths, the miasmas draw us in. Our distended nostrils inhale the poverty with sadistic intensity.”
He is a student of medicine but he has no interest in providing medication to the people; he has a dull feeling that he has to somehow bring about social change. But having no understanding of politics and economics, he is confused about the nature of the social change that he wants.
While reminiscing Pedro de Valdivia, the Spanish Conquistador, Guevara writes, “He belonged to that special class of men the species produces every so often, in whom a craving for limitless power is so extreme that any suffering to achieve it seems natural…” With these words Guevara could as well be describing his own lust for limitless power. He seems to suggest that he has the aspiration to be like Pedro de Valdivia.
A small book of 175 pages, The Motorcycle Diaries ends with Guevara telling himself that he must be willing to fight and die for the cause of the poor, and his dream of seeing a united Latin America.
“I see myself, immolated in the genuine revolution, the great equalizer of individual will, proclaiming the ultimate mea culpa. I feel my nostrils dilate, savouring the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood, the enemy’s death; I steel my body, ready to do battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.”
It is certain that the long journey across South America has played a role in moulding Guevara’s view of his place in the world. This journey made him realize that he was a revolutionary who was yet to find his revolution.
Guevara found his political cause in 1955 when he met Fidel Castro and joined the band of revolutionaries who wish to unleash a bloody communist revolution in Cuba. In the armed struggle against the Batista regime that followed, Guevara’s predatory instinct revealed themselves and he proved to be a cold blooded killer. The hippie had now transformed into a communist.
When the Batista regime collapsed, Castro put Guevara in charge of the revolutionary tribunals, where Guevara oversaw executions of thousands.
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