A Revolutionary of Letters

The deft epistolary prose of Che Guevara, self-styled prophet.

Che Guevara, December 1964 © CBS Archive/Getty Images.

Scientist, traveller, revolutionary. That’s the portrait of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara that emerges from a new collection of his letters that uses material long guarded in Cuban archives. I Embrace You with All My Revolutionary Fervor: Letters 1947-1967 begins with Guevara as a 19-year-old in his native Argentina, spans his ventures across Latin America and in Congo, and ends months before his death in Bolivia. Guevara is a fine letter-writer and this collection highlights the maturity of his young mind. A research medic and a stringent social critic, he is a lively wit who describes himself as a ‘little wandering prophet who, in a loud voice, goes around announcing the coming of the final judgment day’. 

The wandering prophet’s communist commitment gestated in his young adulthood, as he saw Latin America’s vast inequalities at close quarters during his motorcycle trip through South America in 1952 and his travels across Central America from 1953 to 1956. In Costa Rica, having witnessed the treatment of local workers by the US multinational company United Fruit, Guevara writes to his aunt: ‘I swore before a picture of the old and lately lamented compañero, Stalin, not to rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated.’

Along with the strength of his ideology, the letters underscore his devotion to science. Guevara appears to have been close to the cutting edge of allergy medicine in Latin America. ‘I am certain’, he wrote in 1954, ‘that if I reach my truly creative phase at about 35, my exclusive, or at least main, concern will be nuclear physics, or genetics, or some other field that brings together the most interesting aspects of knowledge.’

Despite frequently comparing himself with Don Quixote, Cervantes’ dreamy and chivalric knight-errant, Guevara’s letters display his famous lack of sentimentality. From Guatemala, he writes to his parents: ‘I don’t know if you have heard the news of my marriage and the impending arrival of an heir … if this is the case, I am hereby making the official announcement so that you can tell others: I have married [Hilda] Gadea and we are expecting a child.’ Occasionally we see a tender side. From his doom-fated campaign in Bolivia, the man who confessed he didn’t always know how to convey his affection wrote to his second wife: ‘There are days when I feel so homesick, it takes a complete hold over me. Especially at Christmas and New Year, you can’t imagine how much I miss your ritual tears, under a star-filled sky that reminds me how little I have taken from life in a personal sense.’

There are many examples of deft epistolary prose, although Guevara’s wordsmithery is sometimes deployed to excoriate his correspondents. In 1963 Guevara, now a minister in the Cuban government led by Fidel Castro, told a historian: ‘The first thing a revolutionary has to do in writing history is to stick to the truth as tightly as a finger in a glove. You did that, but it was a boxing glove.’

This new collection will be of use to scholars, but, because many of the letters are published without sufficient context, its suitability for the general reader is more limited. Guevara’s editors, historians at the Che Guevara archive in Havana, provide some useful footnotes, but the collection would have benefited from explanations of Guevara’s contradictory statements. For example, Guevara tells a comrade that he doesn’t ‘believe in exporting revolutions’. This strikes the reader as odd, especially given that in the final section of the collection the editors observe: ‘As had been his intention from the moment he signed on to join the … struggle against the Batista dictatorship, Che set his eyes on extending the revolutionary movement to continental Latin America, beginning in Bolivia.’ In two letters from his Cuban period, Guevara – who, as we have seen, had long believed in Marxism – denies he is a communist. It would have been helpful for the editors to mention that Castro tried to talk down communist influences in his movement and that his revolution only turned leftward after taking power. Without this context, the reader may wonder why Guevara, usually candid to a fault, is being so disingenuous.

Guevara was complicated. As he wrote to his parents in one of his final missives: ‘I am extremely rigid in my actions, and I think that sometimes you didn’t understand me.’ Those wishing to understand him better will need to combine this volume with other reading.

I Embrace You With All My Revolutionary Fervor: Letters 1947-1967
Ernesto Che Guevara, edited by María del Carmen Ariet García and Disamis Arcia Muñoz
Penguin 384pp £12.99
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

 

Daniel Rey is a writer and critic based in New York.