A decade ago I read an article by Patrick Symmes in Harper's about Colombia, which lead me to his book Chasing Che (which itself grew out of a 1997 Harper's article by Symmes about Che titled "Ten Thousand Revolutions: Through South America, In Search of Che Guevara"). Les Marcott's "The Trouble With Che" reminded me that I had written Symmes a letter in response to his book (a letter to which he never responded), and I offer that letter as a compilation of my own thoughts about Che.
One last comment. I've often felt that the "trouble" with Che is not Che but that his life does not fit into any of the binary narrative templates that our culture inserts into our brains about human behavior: good/evil, kind/cruel, faithful/faithless, and so on. As Jorge Castañeda's excellent biography, Compañero, points out, Che was a highly combustible alloy of mismatched impulses and rationalities, sometimes seeing things clearly, sometimes crippled by his blind spots, with more of the latter than the former coming in to play as he sought, late in his life, the more extreme edges of experience so that he wouldn't become domesticated and dulled. We have no flexible template for that sort of jury-rigged personality and thus default to making the kinds of moralistic judgments that don't allow us to simply sit in the presence of the biography and absorb it openly and leniently.
I both agree and disagree with Marcott's conclusion, that "he died uncharismatic and unpersuasive – a narcissist in fatigues [-- and that we shouldn't] turn him into something he wasn't." Agree that by the time Bolivia happened, Che's way of being in the world had become historically irrelevant, but disagree that if we underline his cruelties and scurrilities we have somehow gotten him "right." We cannot hold the shuffled-off Che responsible for the (mis)use of his life(death)-story. Marcott is right when he says that there is a "blank canvas" upon which is projected our own limited views of the man; however, that canvas is not Che but our own self, and it's that story to which we should pay our best attention.
Dear Mr. Symmes:
I had the pleasure of reading your recent article in Harper's about Colombia, which led me to your book, Chasing Che. I was especially interested in the book about Che since, as a playwright, I have been turning over in my mind for quite some time a variety of ideas about how to create a theatre piece about Che. The problem I run into, as you did, is how hard, if not impossible, it is to separate "the man" (whoever that might be) from the image barnacled with history, self-interest, mythology, and afflatus. A play about Che is also a play about Che or "Che" or Che! or however his life has been annotated and shaved.
In the end, you do chase Che and you do "complete" your search for the legend, but I also think that you do not "find" Che because you do not find in yourself what Che found in himself: some quality or wound that, to paraphrase you, made him "give a damn about the poor." Perhaps it was just accumulated fatigue over a 10,000-mile journey, but as the book progressed I noted an increasing antipathy towards the people you met and a growing frustration with "that place" noted as South America on modern maps but which also exists simultaneously in a multitude of pasts and presents that clash, grind, massacre, and occasionally fascinate.
In other words, while the overt text was a travelogue focused on Che, the subtext was really about how an American traveler responded to how foreign this world was to his American expectations. In short, the book ended up being about the kinds of things Che disliked about those who thought they could analyze and prescribe but who lacked an essential groundedness in what they were analyzing and prescribing. For instance, your lack of preparation for the trip may have been part of a carefree attitude of "let come what may," but it also indicated, at least to me, a lack of focus about what you were doing. To go where Che went is not just to go there geographically but also, as much as any human can, to map the spiritual topography onto your own bones so that you can try to see with eyes calibrated to a very different morality and spirituality. (I say this without knowing any of your preparations except for what is described in the book.)
Perhaps what made this kind of preparation hard was something else I sensed in your book: a lack of fit between Che's politics and your own, and not just on the extreme side of advocating revolution. You seemed to carry the standard (post)modern cynicism (or at least jaded caution) about any kind of utopian thinking, which you make clear throughout the book. (Your essay on Colombia was probably included in the issue of Harper's that it was because that issue's thread was about utopias raised and dashed.) But without valuing the risk to reach the extremities of thought and action, one cannot follow Che at all in any visceral way. His way to achieve social justice may have been wrong and futile and historically limited, but the fact that he did it and died for it is what makes up a large part of his appeal (the Christ-like picture after his death and that haunting photo by Korda do not hurt, either). Most people will not go to the same lengths as Che, but they can admire someone who did (even as they deplore, in the same breath and perhaps with slight hypocrisy, the results of the extremism). And I find this kind of admiration missing in your book, which I think short-circuits your search for understanding.
In fact, I had a difficult time gleaning why you undertook the journey at all. To be sure, the project has an intrinsic appeal for a writer like yourself. But I did not get any sense of great joy or amplitude from you about your journey; I often sensed that you felt you had taken on a burden rather than a quest and were determined to see it through no matter what. I felt this most strongly at the end of the book, where it more or less peters out with the ceremony in Santa Clara, leaving this reader with the same sour taste that you felt standing at the field of trampled grass. It felt very much as if you wanted to just end the book, and so you just ended it.
But all in all I was glad to have read the book, and I especially thought the piece on Colombia was well-done, though unfortunately the people who need to read it will never read it. I look forward to your next work.