(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
The memoir's narrative, unfortunately, lacks the spontaneity of the photographs. Aleida March is as committed to the cause of the revolution in Cuba (her own country, though Che was from Argentina) as was her famous husband. She was involved in the guerrilla movement as a young woman and first met Che while acting as a courier (she delivered a package of money to his camp in the Escambray Mountains). After the overthrow of the Batista government they were married. Aleida took up the role of his personal secretary. She minimizes her government service while acknowledging being appointed to the Cuban Delegation to the First Latin American Congress of Women and Children and being an elected officer in the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization which worked to overcome what she describes as “persistent male chauvinism” in order to fully integrate women into the new Cuban society. It’s obvious that her access to Che gave her knowledge of more than the details of their own life together. She was in a unique position, which makes her able to provide potentially new insights into Che’s political activities.
But Aleida is also the current head of the Che Guevara Studies Center in Havana -- appointed by Fidel Castro himself -- making her as protective of her husband’s legacy as she has, until now, been of her private memories of their time together. The combination makes Remembering Che more complicated than the typical memoir. There are multiple agendas at play here, and it would be foolish to approach this book believing otherwise. (Aleida March is published by Ocean Books, whose tagline is “radical books on Latin America and the World”. They also publish Guevara’s diaries, as well as books authored by Fidel Castro -- including Obama and the Empire).
Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara is fundamentally a collection of names, dates and locations peppered with personal anecdotes -- not all of which are interesting. Aleida talks about her husband, the places they traveled, the births of their children, their friends and fellow campesiños. She moves quickly and as a result often deals with events only superficially; including their revolutionary activities (“revolutionary” is a word that’s used a lot). This may be in part because she assumes the reader has also read Guevara’s published diaries.
Aleida chooses to focus instead on Guevara’s long absences after the Cuban Revolution, when he distanced himself from Castro’s government. She describes their clandestine meetings (often arranged by Fidel) and the infrequent communications she received from the Congo, Bolivia, and Eastern Europe. Only the most rudimentary details -- and almost no opinions -- are given of Che’s activities in these places. The details the told in a prose so carefully worded that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were transcribed from recorded interviews and then doctored. Even the major historical incidents of the Cuban Revolution, such as the executions at La Cabaña Fortress and the Bay of Pigs invasion, are allotted only a few, brief sentences. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 is discussed in two paragraphs.
Despite the years that have passed since October 1962, I can still vividly recall the tension of the days when humanity faced an armed conflict of unimaginable proportions. After the Bay of Pigs, facing the constant threat of a US invasion, Cuba decided to accept the Soviet Union’s offer to have nuclear missiles on our territory. We regarded this as a legitimate act of defense of our sovereignty.
The location of these strategic arms was detected by spy planes and denounced by the US government. Unfortunately, when the crisis came to a head, Cuba was not consulted and our revolutionary government was forced to take a principled stand, refusing to succumb to the threats of imperialism. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, but we did not allow UN inspection.
She then goes on to quote briefly from Che’s farewell letter to Fidel Castro, in which he expresses the pride he felt during those “brilliant yet sad days” ... and that’s it. A book about the man who engineered the entire Cuban-Soviet relationship and that’s all we get. The sad truth is: the Wikipedia entry on Ernesto Che Guevara provides more information than Aleida March. This restraint, along with the repeated use of keywords and phrases like “revolutionary government”, “imperialism” and “cultural development” causes Remembering Che to appear almost quaint, like a vintage Soviet propaganda poster.
Still, despite all attempts to stay on message, Aleida is never convincing in the role of stay-at-home-revolutionary. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that she was Mileva Marić to Che’s Einstein, but she obviously knows more than she’s telling. By her own admission she was a guerrilla, an eyewitness to history. She served on government committees, attended university and taught students as part of her husband’s literacy program. She also had the ear of high ranking officials and represented her country internationally ... all while raising five children virtually alone.
She recalls how Che initially had to convince her of the merits of Communism -- so she obviously has a mind and opinions of her own. In this book's Afterword, she expresses regret at not having "sufficiently acknowledged many compañeras, women who played a key role in our struggle", -- a statement that hints at feminist leanings. Her omissions are fascinating, much more so than what she chose to include. They make me believe that there is a more interesting version of this story, one told entirely from Aleida March’s perspective. This book, though, isn’t it.