I just finished reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara, and what a ride it was. At first I was thinking that there’s not a lot to say about this book that hasn’t already been said. However, I was wondering how useful it would be to contextualize Guevara’s narrative as a travel story, instead of as some sort of pre-Communist-manifesto. Surely many of Guevara’s revolutionary ideas, such as his opinions on public healthcare, can be attributed to experiences he had on his cross-continental journey. But politicizing aside–how epic of an adventure did Che and his travel partner REALLY have? Is it at all comparable to some of the greater gems of travel literature, such as Kerouac’s On the Road?
Obviously, Guevara’s prose is much less wax poetic than Kerouac’s, although that’s difficult for me to say since it’s been translated into English. It’s entirely possible (probable?) that in his native language, Che’s musings were as eloquent, humorous, and original as the ones we read in Kerouac’s account. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:
“For me, the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it is told and never revealing those secrets; always giving the best advice–its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way you choose.” (page 34)
“In the half-light that surrounded us, phantoms swirled around and around but ‘she’ would not appear. I still believed I loved her until this moment, when I realized I felt nothing.” (page 54)
“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.” (page 69)
Each section of the novel is also poetically titled, examples: “Ever northward,” “Toward the navel of the world,” and “And now, I feel my great roots unearth, free and…” The emotions of the wide-eyed, excited young doctor come through easily in the prose. The entire last section, “A note in the margin,” is one of the most beautiful pieces of reflection I’ve read in a long time.
The edition of the novel that I have, published by Ocean Press, would be particularly useful as a classroom set, and could be taught in a middle school language arts class. I think Guevara’s first-person account could be a great addition to a unit on Latin American or non-English speaking authors. It could also be useful in the context of nonfiction/biographical writing, travel literature (as I mentioned above), or in a historical/political unit about Latin America and Che himself. It’s a very flexible book.
It also lends itself to classroom use because of its vignette-style organization. It’s not broken down into individual chapters, but rather short narrative expositions that are never more than five or six pages long (i.e. could be easily excerpted, photo-copied, and distributed to students, if you want to include the book in your unit but don’t have time to read the entire thing.) Additionally, and maybe most importantly for students, there’s a lot of supplementary contextualization in the Ocean Press edition, including a map and timeline of Che and Alberto’s journey that could be photo-copied, enlarged, and displayed on a bulletin board. It also has an entire section of *gasp* pictures!
But back to the meat of the book. I imagine it’s hard for anyone reading this blog–someone sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned room, linked up to wireless internet–to imagine what the breadth of Guevara’s travels must have been like. But the one thing I found somewhat unsettling about Che’s writing was his constant complaining about his asthmatic condition. I’m using the word unsettling for a reason–it didn’t annoy me, and certainly was relevant to his discussion about his experiences–but I kept wondering how the hell he didn’t die. From what he writes, you get the impression that his asthma was really, really bad, and certainly the sub-par medical conditions from both traveling and traveling in such underdeveloped countries didn’t help. It seemed like every other day he was having an asthma attack and was completely incapacitated. It made me even more in awe of his commitment to his journey…most people with such a debilitating medical condition wouldn’t have even considered such a grand undertaking.
I’ll try to write more on how to incorporate The Motorcycle Diaries into an English or humanities classroom later. I think I’d most likely use it to highlight a fun example of creative nonfiction to middle schoolers. Kids could see it as an example of how they can write about their own incredible journeys, using figurative language and sociopolitical theme. How would you use it?
Whether or not you agree with his “politics,” you can’t deny that Che was a great revolutionary, and someone to be admired.