Feeling that he had some living to do before gaining his medical degree, waging guerilla warfare and becoming Cuban Minister for Industry, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara decided at the age of twenty-three that it was time he explored a bit more of the world – and if he could get roaring drunk and pick up some women along the way, so much the better.
The Motorcycle Diaries documents "El Che’s" odyssey through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela on the back of a 500cc Norton motorcycle (named La Ponderosa, "The Powerful One") in the company of his friend Alberto Granado between 1951 and 1952. The journey broadens the young man’s mind and political standpoint, and he becomes increasingly outraged by the hardships endured by the ordinary people he meets along the way.
But this is no dusty political autobiography. Equally at home ruminating on the plight of the Chilean proletariat and flipping burgers in the hope of gaining some free booze, Guevara comes across here as someone who likes nothing better than consuming heroic amounts of maté wine, telling tall tales and getting into trouble. And he does get into trouble. Shooting his host’s dog after mistaking it for a puma, vomiting out of his bedroom window onto a tray of peaches on the balcony below and volunteering as a fireman only to sleep through the alarm as a nearby building burnt to the ground, Guevara relates his tales in such a matter-of-fact manner that he almost convinces you that this is entirely normal behavior.
Nevertheless, it is very interesting to see his empathy with ordinary people and his political extremism develop over the course of his journey. He admits that as a traveler he can only ever see things at surface level, but he attempts to delve beneath the sheen of the places he visits – he goes to see a woman dying of tuberculosis and is appalled by the failings of the public health system; he gets a tour of a copper mine and asks how many men died in its creation; he visits a leper colony and is not afraid to live among the patients when almost everyone else has just left them to die. He becomes so angry that he concludes by railing against the despotism of contemporary civilization and declaring that he will "slaughter any enemy I lay hands on."
The Motorcycle Diaries is presented in a fluid and colorful style, for which Guevara and translator Ann Wright probably deserve equal praise. The letters, footnotes and biographical chronology give historical detail and structure (although the map in the preliminary pages is virtually illegible), and the pace is unrelenting throughout. At once an interesting insight into the mind of a revolutionary and a bawdy tale of youthful hedonism, this book personalizes Che Guevara without detracting from his political principles, and re-affirms his status as one of the twentieth century’s most enduring icons.