Book Review: Motorcycle Diaries

I feel fortunate to have had my political and humanitarian awakening from my explorations into the words and thoughts of Ernesto Guevara. I do say with certainty that I might not agree with some of the violence that surrounds the atmosphere of “Che”. However, I was not in his position and have not had to make dire decisions as he has, so my perspective is different. The love Ernesto bled for people was the primary driving force of his future. The means he used do not properly describe who “Che” was. One must look first at the evolution and journey he took in Motorcycle Diaries.

As a young boy, I remember the life of Che and Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild) as two lives that used geography, cultural and physical, to profoundly change their morals. The loneliness and expanse of geography allows one to look into themselves for miles and miles. What is over that the horizon could be so endless and vague you have to look inward merely to take another step. Christopher McCandless used his journey for more selfish reasons whereas Ernesto used his encounters with profoundly suffering people to change the western hemisphere.


Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

The book is eloquently broken into three segments of evolution. Ernesto and Alberto arriving in Chile can be looked at as a shedding of adolescents. Before, Ernesto seemed more a typical kid. The journey through Argentina is plagued with all the drama and follies one would expect of two kids doing something profoundly stupid. However, many moments almost seem to command more gravity then points later in the journey. When Ernesto described the terrifying conversation with the ocean as he lay by its shores echoed through my own psyche. A giant beast echoing warnings described as beating against the fortress within him speaks of the enormity of his journey, not only in the book but also in his future to come.

This first phase of their journey is marked with situational comedy that creates an almost calm before the storm. Yes, they had accident after accident and their bike was quickly becoming the main character but they had the safety of Argentina and their youth. You had the sense of incredible happiness. The happiness that only comes from knowing very soon, maybe the next day, everything will be different. We too feel Ernesto’s feeling of melancholy and sadness at the round behind him, yet terrifying excitement at what is to come. We are comfortable in Argentina and but the Andes are calling.

The lighthearted dialogue throughout this first phase still lends an insight into Ernesto’s thinking. There is s wisdom comes only with laughing at the predicaments that happen. Decisions have consequences. Not using a latrine under your bed could be disastrous for drying peaches under your window, or poking at the matrimony of marriage causes a stampede of drunk angry men. Yes, one would have to flee when an angry mob is nipping at your heels. These situations are never looked at as victimization. Ernesto is always overly honest, even in his self-analyzation. He never takes for granted the hospitality given to Alberto and himself. In fact, he describes at great length the hospitality of each country they visit, notably Chile.

Things quickly take a turn, mentally and physically, for Alberto and Ernesto. The interactions that follow have profound changes to how Ernesto rationalizes things. In their journey through northern Chile and Peru, Ernesto begins to form his political ideology. The marginalization and exploitation of those they meet explain many of the reasons we know of “Che” today.

What did Ernesto see, what did he feel as he and Alberto walked through the arid Atacama? The desert has always embodied intensely fearful spirituality where landscapes bleed into endless horizons. The rock formations rise like giant towers and steeples on an empty alien terrain. Did the arduous trek through the desert effect Ernesto’s night with the communist couple?  We know the interaction was profound. The incredible struggles of that couple and the loss of their dignity and livelihood simply because of their political ideology did not bode well with Ernesto.

To quote Ernesto, “The couple, numb with cold, huddling against each other in the desert light, were a living representation of the proletariat in any part of the world. They had not a single miserable blanket to cover themselves with, so we gave them one of ours and Alberto and I wrapped the other around us as best we could. It was one of the coldest times in my life, but also, one that made me feel a little more brotherly toward this strange for, at least, human species.” (Guevara pg. 77)

During these encounters in and around Chuquicamata Ernesto casually describes what is to come in terms of globalization. The desires of people to have a stable, even if foreign owned, mining company versus the fearful idea of inefficient state operation. However, he seems to be at odds with what is better because most, if not all, of the workers, are merely fighting for their bread. It is here the seeds of anti-imperialization and control are planted. The gross treatment of workers by the mining companies is described by the graves of workers that line the mine.

This part of the journey we are introduced to the very personal treatment Ernesto gives to those marginalized people. At the bed of a dying tuberculosis patient Ernesto pensively questions the systems of support given to these people. The inadequate health care, the impossible struggle to survive and the dignity lost when one get sick. He laments on this patient’s outlook because he is completely helpless and unable to solve her dilemmas. Medicine alone will not solve her problems but a fundamental change in the operations of society could. What power does he have to accomplish this?

The time Alberto and Ernesto spent at the leper colony allows us to see love, not violence in “Che”. Taking in his words he said, “without knowing us, have given us this beautiful demonstration of their affection, celebrating my birthday as if it were an intimate celebration for one of your own” (Guevara pg. 148). There are too many pages to quote when describing Ernesto’s love but his intimate portrait of the lepers leaves no need to quote. He talks about these people needing only common respect, need only to be heard and need only interaction.

The final phase we are left with a man who feels alien in his own home. This is further typified when he speaks of returning to Argentina. Ernesto said of this, “the personage who wrote these notes died when he again stepped on Argentine soil. The one ordering and polishing them, I, I am not me; at least I am not the same inner me. That wandering without course through our Monumental America has changed me more than I thought.” (Guevara pg. 148)

Ernesto is left at crossroads. This continental journey leaves him questioning his medical aspirations and opens the door for his political ideology. The man is left almost purposeless. It is argued that it is not until Guatemala that the complete impact of Alberto and Ernesto’s continental journey sinks in. The incredible love, struggle, and lives of common people are mixed with the furious desire to change the politics that bind those people. In understanding Motorcycle Diaries and the political nightmare that was Guatemala, we can make complete sense of Cuba and Bolivia. We can make complete sense of a man who throughout his journeys allowed the very fabric of his being be changed by the people who moved through it.


Works Cited

Guevara, Ernesto. Motorcycle Diaries. Melbourne: Ocean, 2003. Print.

Guevara, Ernesto. Self Portrait. Melbourne: Ocean, 2006. Print.

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