Saturday, March 19, 2011

WFJ Book Club #6: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

I imagine that most ordinary people do not miss the Cold War, particularly those who lived through it.  There's plenty of nostalgia for the idyllic 50s, the revolutionary 60s, the celebratory 70s; even the grimy, soulless 80's.  But I'm fairly certain there'd be even more nostalgia if not for the constant, invisible threat of fiery nuclear death.  Whatever the comforting symmetries of a bipolar world of super powers and proxy wars, the fact that it could all be brought down to distressingly symmetrical annihilation in about forty minutes is not the sort of thing most people dwell upon fondly.

It takes a special sort of mind to recall the Cold War as a joyous time; or maybe just a special sort of personality.  If there's one person who really enjoyed himself in the midst of a clash between two nuclear-armed alliances, living for the cause of one without fearing reprisal from the other, it must have been Che Guevara.  In his eyes, the Earth of the last century was the setting of a great adventure, and he had the honor of being one of its greatest heroes.  In his eyes, the transformation of not only the world's political system, but the common culture of humanity, was an achievable goal.  In his eyes, nuclear war was a small price to pay for the triumph of a beautiful idea.

It's often beyond our power to understand, but the Cold War was not merely a battle between two entrenched political ideologies.  There was another dimension to the conflict: between revolution and the status quo.  Politically, the Cold War ended dramatically in favor of the United States and its allies, but in the course of the century the status quo that those countries defended came mercilessly unraveled.  For the most part, this change was undirected, and brought the world a collection of petty monarchies and dictatorships.  But underneath all this was a force pushing for a unified, worldwide, and socialist revolution that would change the fate of humanity for the better.  Che was a part of that force, by his own intention, and if anyone could have made it happen it could have been him.  Unfortunately for him, in most cases it was the forces of chaos that prevailed.

Jon Lee Anderson, the author of the book I had the pleasure of reading, is a lucky biographer: the kind who has the opportunity of writing about a fantastic subject, a public figure with extensive documentation who nonetheless defies easy categorization.  Che embodies that sort of figure very well; in fact, he does it better than any one person really should be able to.  It may not be settled in the record whether Che was a good guy or a bad guy, but I gathered the distinct impression that he must have been one or the other - and that is peculiar.  Heroes and villains are constructions of fiction, defined completely by their motivations: actual human beings tend to be indecisive, and vacillate from one opinion to another.  To write about a real person as synchronized with a cause as Che Guevara must feel in parts like writing a novel.

It's worth remembering that he died a thoroughly unpleasant death, but up until the end of his life Che seemed to exist in a state that I can only interpret as joy.  He wasn't tormented or held back by demons from his past: such things were inconveniences at the most.  From the moment he could move about independently, he hurtled effortlessly into the future.  And unlike most restless youths, Che found an ideology that he could believe in total, and followed it into a life of adventure.  The philosopher Sartre reportedly called Che "the most complete human being of [the] age," and if that means anything, then it certainly means it was a fine thing to be Che.

Che's absolute belief in Marxism and his remarkable degree of self-purpose are twin pillars holding up what might seem to be an impossible personality: I've never met anyone in real life as focused, disciplined, and still as idealistic as Che reportedly was.  Of course he had his rascally, irreverent side, a trait common to many young men in the world.  Discovering someone's youthful excesses, or their enduring taste for all things bawdy, usually tends to make that person more relatable and human, contrasting with a more mature, public persona.  But in Che's case, the overriding impression is that it was all the same to him.  I don't think his private life contained a single major embarrassment for him, at least in the sense of causing any intrinsic shame.  No youthful indiscretion could possibly derail the public Che.

If life were more like a novel, I might say that the Cold War was a setting especially constructed for the likes of characters like Che Guevara.  In reality it was the other way around, another remarkable reminder of a disturbing truth.  Most of the things we regard as exceptional are products of conditions that range from uncomfortable to horrific; there's no adventure without danger, and no Che without a clash of ideologies under the shadow of atomic doom.  If there is such a thing as providence in human history, it shows itself in providing for great characters to act in great moments.

Of course, Che's life is not a novel.  Like all human lives (especially those cut short), there are loose ends and inconsistencies that fail to resolve themselves.  But life is the instructor of art, and in terms of drama and meaning, few lives have been more educational.

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