Thursday, December 16, 2004

Che and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

Some far more clever men than I - most notably the anti-totalitarian left-liberal Paul Berman - have over the past few months drive a bulldozer through "The Motorcycle Diaries", the latest Hollywood attempt to romanticize Che Guevara. I wasn't going to buy into the debate until I read this morning the review of the film by Vicki Roach in Australia's "Daily Telegraph":

"Some writers have criticised The Motorcycle Diaries for being overly romantic. But what else would one expect from a film that's designed to put audiences in touch with their inner-student?"
And here's the very essence of the Che mythos' attraction for so many people around the world, even - or maybe particularly - those not very political ones: Che, the young, cool, Latin hipster. I'm not sure which uni Vicki Roach went to, but while my university experience was fun, there wasn't anything romantic about it. Which might actually be precisely the point: far too many middle-class, well-educated Westerners dream they, like Che, could have traveled during the summer break up and down the exotic South America on an old beaten-up motorcycle. In reality, most of us have spent our uni holidays waiting on at coffee shops or just bumming around. The "motorcycle Che" doesn't put us in touch with our inner-student but with an inner-student as many would like it to have been; it's a fantasy of regrets.

And that's the main problem with "The Motorcycle Diaries" - because it focuses on the "every-backpacker's-dream" phase of Che's life without providing the new generations of viewers with any useful political and historical context, it will only serve to perpetuate the glamorized myth of a man who, as Berman reminds us, in real life was anything but:

"Che was a totalitarian. He achieved nothing but disaster. Many of the early leaders of the Cuban Revolution favored a democratic or democratic-socialist direction for the new Cuba. But Che was a mainstay of the hardline pro-Soviet faction, and his faction won. Che presided over the Cuban Revolution's first firing squads. He founded Cuba's 'labor camp' system—the system that was eventually employed to incarcerate gays, dissidents, and AIDS victims. To get himself killed, and to get a lot of other people killed, was central to Che's imagination."
Viewing Che through the prism of "The Motorcycle Diaries" is like focusing on Hitler, the frustrated bohemian painter in the antebellum Vienna. Many on the left, nowadays, would forgive Hitler for killing all those Jews, but they will never forgive him for being a short, pale, ridiculous figure with a pimp moustache and unglamorous obsessions.

Sadly, romantic confusion is not restricted to movie reviewers and watchers.
Gael Garcia Bernal, the new Latin heartthrob who plays the young Che, seems equally dizzy:

"Bernal admits he'd already had life-altering experiences on road trips. 'Oh, many times before,' he says of his time teaching at summer schools in Mexico and a year in Cuba. 'Especially as a young man of 16, to go to Cuba. It was very liberating,' he grins."
Maybe sexually, but I can't imagine living in an impoverished totalitarian gulag for twelve months as liberating in any other sense of the word.

Thus, as Marx has once wisely remarked, history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, and second time as farce. And the left never learns from either.


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