Caribbean Beat Magazine

Second Coming

Jeremy Taylor on Che in Verse, ed. Gavin O’Toole and Georgina Jiménez

Che in Verse, ed. Gavin O’Toole and Georgina Jiménez (Aflame Books, ISBN 0-9552339-5-x, 336 pp)

Ernesto “Che” Guevara wasn’t much use as a revolutionary. His heart was in the right place, but he was impatient with logistics. He wanted to be in the thick of the action: his best moments were probably his daring and courageous fighting during Castro’s advance through Cuba in 1958. But once the Cuban revolution was won, it didn’t take him long to get bored: the hard work of consolidation and development was not his scene.

There’s a story attributed to a photographer from Magnum about how Guevara was given one of his early appointments. Castro’s lieutenants were assigning responsibilities in the new government. “Is there an economist in the room?” someone asked. Che, thinking the question was “Is there a communist in the room?”, shot his hand up, and was promptly made governor of the national bank.

Banking was not Che’s forte, and as minister for industry his enthusiasm waned as his frustration with bureaucracy waxed. He was quite a hit as executioner at the La Cabaña fortress in Havana, where to be labelled a Batista loyalist was sufficient evidence of guilt. Revolutionary commitment justified a high degree of ruthlessness. During the “Cuban missile crisis” of 1962, Che was quite prepared to use nuclear weapons against the United States, and was furious when the Soviet Union backed down and took them away. He became increasingly anti-Soviet as well as anti-American, and drifted away from Castro on policy.

Guevara left Cuba mysteriously in 1965 — he resigned, renounced his Cuban citizenship, sold up, and disappeared. For months, Cubans had no idea where he had gone. In fact, he was in the Congo, testing his theory that a small armed vanguard unit could trigger a mass uprising and remove an oppressive government. He was wrong. Hopelessly outmanoeuvered, he himself admitted the operation was an “unmitigated disaster.”

This did not stop him from trying again, this time in Bolivia, where he resolved to liberate the masses from President René Barrientos. His vanguard consisted of about fifty men. But again he relied too heavily on luck and daring. His radio link with Havana didn’t work, his supply chain wasn’t organised, decoding equipment was lost in a river, and his movements were soon being monitored by the CIA and American special forces.

Guevara expected the Bolivian peasantry and the communist party to rise up with him, as had happened in Cuba; but they didn’t. By the time the Bolivian army caught up with him in October 1967, he was sick, exhausted, emaciated, his uniform in rags. After he was shot, his hands were chopped off as proof of his identity, and his remains were buried under the runway of an airstrip at Vallegrande. (They were later exhumed and returned to Cuba for interment by more sympathetic mourners.)

Had Guevara lived, he would probably have become a footnote in the history of Latin American radicalism, another amateur romantic idealist. But he had the good fortune to die young — he was thirty-nine — and in heroic circumstances. This was 1967, when everything from sexual convention to the war in Vietnam was being challenged: the idea was venceremos! The Zeitgeist could have found no icon more powerful than the martyred Che. A noble idealist hunted down in the jungle like a dog, fighting back against all odds, betrayed by the people he was struggling to help. And he made such a handsome martyr: that charismatic face, the beret, the long hair, the wispy beard, the clenched fist.

One thing in particular burned Che’s image into global consciousness: The Photograph. Even now, forty years after Che’s death, it is one of the most familiar images in the world. An enormous industry has grown up around it, from the Che Guevara Trail in Bolivia to the online stores peddling Che t-shirts, Che mugs, Che bookmarks, Che stamps and caps, key chains and can openers. The revolutionary, anti-capitalist warrior has been reinvented as a major world brand by ingenious capitalists and anti-revolutionaries, an irony Guevara would not have appreciated. The poet Martha Chaves writes:

At a très chic pet store
in Westmount, Quebec

I saw a woolen sweater
        for a dog
a mere $100.00
        no more
bearing the bearded mug
of Ernesto Guevara A.K.A. El Ché
Comandante Guerrillero Revolucionario Extraordinaire

(“Ernesto Guevara Chez Everywhere”, 2006)

The Photograph was taken in 1960 by Alberto Korda, photographer of the Cuban revolution, after an emotional mass funeral in Havana, and was later adapted as a graphic by an Irish artist, Jim Fitzpatrick. It romanticised Guevara in a way no other revolutionary has been romanticised, even Castro (how long since you saw a Fidel t-shirt?). It captures exactly Guevara’s good looks, his idealism, his sternness and resolve. Here was a man ready for struggle. Looking at it you might think, well, yes, perhaps after all it is possible we shall overcome. The Photograph turned Che into an icon, constructed a mythology around him, and gave his image a global reach.

After the execution of Che, poets everywhere began to draft their tributes, their elegies and eulogies. Che in Verse features work by 135 poets and songwriters (fifteen of them Caribbean) from fifty-three different countries. The pieces range over forty years, from the mid-1960s to 2007. They come not just from South and Central America and the Caribbean but from Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand, even the United States.

There are some big names here, too:?Derek Walcott, Robert Lowell, Pablo Neruda, Nicolás Guillén, Miguel Barnet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Julio Cortázar, Juan Gelman, Gilberto Gil, René Depestre. Few revolutionary bunglers can ever have amassed so many accolades.

As you might expect with hagiography, there is a good deal of bad verse in this book. The editors address that problem in advance. Gavin O’Toole (who edits the Latin American Review of Books) writes that the collection contains “some works that — by poetic standards — may seem naïve, over-simplistic, or ill-judged, or contain references to events or people . . . that have subsequently proven inaccurate.” True. The subject is not Che himself, but his global impact as reflected in verse, O’Toole explains. That lets quite a large number of poets off the hook.
The best writers in the collection need no apology. Lowell writes in 1969:

Week of Che Guevara, hunted, hurt,
Held prisoner one lost day, then gangstered down
For gold, for justice — violence cracking on violence,
Rock on rock, the corpse of the last armed prophet
Laid out on a sink in a shed . . .

(“Che Guevara”, 1969)

But it is notoriously difficult to translate poetry, and the bulk of the work is from Spanish or French originals. In some cases this exposes a writer cruelly, and leaves little but banality:

Noble was his spirit,
To Bolivia he went to die;
Ernesto was his name,
The world called him “Che”.

Valiant and rash
With Rocinante he set out;
For his appointment with death
He did forever flout . . .

(“Ode to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara”, Ernesto Con, 1996,
tr. Georgina Jiménez)

Several writers use this apt parallel between Che Guevara and Don Quixote. But an embarrassing number of poems address Guevara in terms of adoration and sorrow more suitable to a god than a human being. Che is not just a man of courage, vision, and integrity who set out to reverse the evils of the world. He becomes an explicitly religious icon: a saint, a martyr, a crucified Christ whose resurrected spirit lives on as an inspiration and object of devotion. He is a divine being who will come again to free the world from evil and oppression. He is the embodiment of the “new man” who was supposed to evolve in Cuba. “He was like a Christ taken down from the cross,” writes Peter Weiss, and the sentiment is widely shared.

Frieda Groffy (Belgium) is moved to surrender herself to Che as others do to Christ:

But I do want to sell my soul to you
To become one of those “new people”
You were dreaming about
To pass on your message
Carried by the stormy winds
Of our tormented times . . .

(“To Che”, 1996)

It’s a relief to come across some scepticism, as in Adrian Mitchell’s sarcastic observation that Che is only “technically dead.” Martha Chaves observes: “Had Che been homely looking / Like Sandino / Or butt ugly / like Levesque / he would not be bought / and sold / by people who don’t know ‘bout him.” And Cuba’s Vicente Feliú warns: “there is always someone who raises you upon a shrine . . . From this day our duty is to defend you from being god.”
This is not mere quibbling. The essential truth of myth has to be distinguished from its accretions, and an alarming number of writers in this collection swallow the myth of Che Guevara whole and unexamined. No longer a fallible human being, he is adored as a lost messiah. Being safely dead, and the world having moved on, he is a perfect god for the nostalgic left. But if the writer is to engage with the realities of a new century, it must be with a much stronger arsenal than this, and with vision unencumbered by fuzzy adulation.