Monday, December 19, 2011

CHE GUEVARA: A REVOLUTIONARY LIFE by Jon Lee Anderson ✰✰✰


There is surprisingly little out there in English on the life of the legendary leftist guerilla Che Guevara, aside from his own writings and a couple of very poorly written biographies.  To say that Jon Lee Anderson’s work is the definitive tale would be an accurate statement.  Anderson went so far as to move his entire family to Cuba for five years while writing this hefty tome.  Che’s family also gave the author tremendous support and access to many of his unpublished written materials.
For those unfamiliar with who he was, Che Guevara was an Argentinian from an upstanding family and a credentialed doctor.  Initially, he had ideas to use his training to help those less fortune, but as he began to read the works of Karl Marx and others (Che, we learn, was a voracious reader), his ideas became gradually more leftist until he eventually became an avowed Communist.  Anderson very clearly defines Che’s ideological journey, making it a definite strength of the book.  Che gained lasting fame as one of Fidel Castro’s right hand men, second only, and sometimes even surpassing, Fidel’s brother Raoul.  One of the big surprises for me was that Fidel was not initially a Communist, and Che can certainly be credited with indoctrinating him and instilling Communism as the dominant force in Cuba.  Therein lies his renown.
My biggest complaint was actually the painstaking detail in this account.  A voluminous 814 pages, this one could easily have had 200 pages edited out.  Truly, does anyone care to know exactly what was packed in Che’s jeep for a inconsequential ride through the jungle?  Or need a virtually hour by hour play-by-play of guerilla movements?  Che’s lifelong battle with asthma is also reiterated to excess, although that health issue does at least have relevance to the tale.  In my opinion, these elements slowed down what is, in essence, a very engaging story.
There were also many things I loved about this book.  Excellent coverage is given to Che’s family, not only his two wives and children, but also his parents and siblings.  Che Guevara was a lifelong diarist and a talented, published writer in his own right, and Anderson makes extensive use of Che’s own writings through frequent use of direct quotes.  This added a tremendous character to the book, as Che’s caustic humor shines through his diary entries.  By the end of the book I felt as if I knew the man, not just the ideologue.  Once past the Cuban Revolution, events in Che’s life were covered in a fast paced accounting.  Ironically, I enjoyed the back quarter of the book much more than the preceding pages about the most pivotal era of his life, largely because the narrative was tightened up, less in need of a good editor.  I also appreciated the wrap-up in which the author lets the reader know what became of many of the key players in Che’s life.
Whatever your personal political leanings and feelings regarding armed insurgency, this is a fairly unbiased, well-researched work which takes a very straight course in documenting not only the life of this complex man, but also the political temperament of many South and Central American countries during the 1950s and 1960s.  Many events which exploded in the region during the late 1970s through the 1990s have their genesis in events depicted in this accounting, making it good background for further reading on the area.  It is, however, regrettably bogged down in places, so I recommend it only to those with a large enough measure of interest in the topic to press through those sections.  For someone with a particular interest in the subject matter this would no doubt be a five star book.  For one with a casual interest, I would give it three and a half stars, which I rounded down to three, chiefly for lack of better editing.

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