This book really only came into the limelight after it was adapted into a film of the same name, which I saw long before I read the book. It chronicles the journey that Ernesto took with his friend Alberto Granado between Dec 1951 and Aug 1952, when they set out from their home town in Argentina in order to travel across South America and eventually into the United States.
The book was based on the journal that Ernesto kept at the time, but was not written up until later, which is why he opens the book with the statement “The person who wrote these notes passed away the moment his feet touched Argentine soil. The person who reorganises and polishes them, me, is no longer, at least I’m not the person I once was.”
Most people, and I’m guessing you too, have heard of ‘Che’ Guevara, the pioneer of guerrilla warfare and revolutionary who, along with Fidel Castro, overthrew the Cuban government. A counter-cultural icon, his face adorns many posters and t-shirts and who is as equally reviled as he is revered both for what he did in his lifetime and for the values which he stood for.
But this is not the same person who we meet in the pages of this book. The Ernesto we travel with is a trainee doctor, setting out on an adventure as a young man in his early-mid twenties with his friend on a motorcycle. Living off their wits and the hospitality of strangers, they tour South America, making friends along the way and observing different people’s ways of life. He’s plagued by asthma, but is always keen to play in goal whenever a game of football is on offer.
In the first half of the book, there is not even a hint of any potentially revolutionary influences, though as the narrative continues through Chile and Peru, Ernesto & Alberto meet more people who are struggling to earn enough for their daily bread. Here, we see glimpses of the injustices that, in hindsight, may have started Ernesto down the path he eventually took. Throughout the book, Ernesto comes across as very intelligent and highly observant, keen to always understand people and the situations they find themselves in.
There are a couple of slightly sour notes, though these are isolated. In two places, there are hints of anti-Semitism and homophobia from Guevara, but these are not expanded on.
But that small note aside, it is very worthwhile read, which not only reveals the mind and observations of a young incarnation of one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, but it also provides a snapshot of life in Latin America in the early 1950s.
The final chapter “a note in the margin” is a remarkable miniature polemic. It is a very clear political statement, intent on revolution by force. It appears quite suddenly and seems to reflect the view of the later, radicalised “Che” rather than the young doctor, Ernesto. Of course, I cannot say for certain that this was the case, so I would leave it for you to judge.