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Che Guevara and Good Fiction

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If you live in Miami, the name of Che Guevara is anathema. If you are in the working class in Buenos Aires (or anywhere else in South America) he is a saint.

This man, who was central to Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s government in 1959 and who is the iconic figure of the Cuban revolution to this day (Fidel notwithstanding), is the beneficiary of an enormous glut of written biography and documentary film, plus one very distinguished dramatic film (The Motorcycle Diaries by Walter Salles). He is also the subject of whole libraries of political journalism and commentary.

Politically there’s little subtlety, regardless of which side of the spectrum you prefer. For very many, Guevara remains a Stalinist totalitarian and a murderer. For countless others, he is the hero who stood up to the United States, denounced that country on the world stage, and paid for it with his life in a dirt-floor schoolroom in Bolivia in 1967. The Catholic Church condemns him to this day. Those who love him would, to this day, sanctify him.

But there could be a middle ground, a place where Che Guevara’s heart exists and is available for thoughtful examination. It’s a ground that, in Guevara’s case, has not been much populated, though. Fiction at its best is a vehicle for exposing the human heart. My favorite kind is that in which the hero goes from an emotional state of not-knowing to a state of knowledge, the novel itself being the description of that emotional discovery. Fiction has done this so often, and with such distinction, that many of the greatest examples of soulful exploration ever lie in the pages of novels, from Don Quixote to Dickens to Don Delillo and everywhere in between.

A recent survey on Wikipedia of fiction about Che Guevara, though, lists only a dozen books. Some have a right-wing political bent (William F. Buckley’s See You Later Alligator) and they can be disregarded right away because of that. The left-wing political stuff as well. With regard to both of these, political fiction is really political opinion done up with stylistic ribbons and bows, and not much else. Others of these 12 novels are just not very good. Jay Cantor’s fine The Death of Che Guevara goes a very long way toward exploring the emotional life of this very violent man. But for the most part, there’s little in fiction about Guevara that matters.

This despite the fact that there are many contemporary novels about other great historical figures that are very distinguished indeed: Gabriel García Marquéz’s The General in His Labyrinth about Simón Bolívar, Tomas Eloy Martinez’s The Perón Novel about Juan Domingo Perón and Hilary Mantel’s critically-acclaimed Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell, to name a few. From these we know that it can be done.

For good or ill, Che Guevara deserves fine fiction. So, where are the novelists of this man’s soul, and when do we get to see their books?

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About Terence Clarke