Remembering Che, by Aleida March

(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)

Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.

Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.

So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time — candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.

It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy — a directness — in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.

The memoir’s narrative, unfortunately, lacks the spontaneity of the photographs. Aleida March is as committed to the cause of the revolution in Cuba (her own country, though Che was from Argentina) as was her famous husband. She was involved in the guerrilla movement as a young woman and first met Che while acting as a courier (she delivered a package of money to his camp in the Escambray Mountains). After the overthrow of the Batista government they were married. Aleida took up the role of his personal secretary. She minimizes her government service while acknowledging being appointed to the Cuban Delegation to the First Latin American Congress of Women and Children and being an elected officer in the Federation of Cuban Women, an organization which worked to overcome what she describes as “persistent male chauvinism” in order to fully integrate women into the new Cuban society. It’s obvious that her access to Che gave her knowledge of more than the details of their own life together. She was in a unique position, which makes her able to provide potentially new insights into Che’s political activities.

But Aleida is also the current head of the Che Guevara Studies Center in Havana — appointed by Fidel Castro himself — making her as protective of her husband’s legacy as she has, until now, been of her private memories of their time together. The combination makes Remembering Che more complicated than the typical memoir. There are multiple agendas at play here, and it would be foolish to approach this book believing otherwise. (Aleida March is published by Ocean Books, whose tagline is “radical books on Latin America and the World”. They also publish Guevara’s diaries, as well as books authored by Fidel Castro — including Obama and the Empire).

Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara is fundamentally a collection of names, dates and locations peppered with personal anecdotes — not all of which are interesting. Aleida talks about her husband, the places they traveled, the births of their children, their friends and fellow campesiños. She moves quickly and as a result often deals with events only superficially; including their revolutionary activities (“revolutionary” is a word that’s used a lot). This may be in part because she assumes the reader has also read Guevara’s published diaries.

Aleida chooses to focus instead on Guevara’s long absences after the Cuban Revolution, when he distanced himself from Castro’s government. She describes their clandestine meetings (often arranged by Fidel) and the infrequent communications she received from the Congo, Bolivia, and Eastern Europe. Only the most rudimentary details — and almost no opinions — are given of Che’s activities in these places. The details the told in a prose so carefully worded that I wouldn’t be surprised if they were transcribed from recorded interviews and then doctored. Even the major historical incidents of the Cuban Revolution, such as the executions at La Cabaña Fortress and the Bay of Pigs invasion, are allotted only a few, brief sentences. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 is discussed in two paragraphs.

Despite the years that have passed since October 1962, I can still vividly recall the tension of the days when humanity faced an armed conflict of unimaginable proportions. After the Bay of Pigs, facing the constant threat of a US invasion, Cuba decided to accept the Soviet Union’s offer to have nuclear missiles on our territory. We regarded this as a legitimate act of defense of our sovereignty.

The location of these strategic arms was detected by spy planes and denounced by the US government. Unfortunately, when the crisis came to a head, Cuba was not consulted and our revolutionary government was forced to take a principled stand, refusing to succumb to the threats of imperialism. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn, but we did not allow UN inspection.

She then goes on to quote briefly from Che’s farewell letter to Fidel Castro, in which he expresses the pride he felt during those “brilliant yet sad days” … and that’s it. A book about the man who engineered the entire Cuban-Soviet relationship and that’s all we get. The sad truth is: the Wikipedia entry on Ernesto Che Guevara provides more information than Aleida March. This restraint, along with the repeated use of keywords and phrases like “revolutionary government”, “imperialism” and “cultural development” causes Remembering Che to appear almost quaint, like a vintage Soviet propaganda poster.

Still, despite all attempts to stay on message, Aleida is never convincing in the role of stay-at-home-revolutionary. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that she was Mileva Marić to Che’s Einstein, but she obviously knows more than she’s telling. By her own admission she was a guerrilla, an eyewitness to history. She served on government committees, attended university and taught students as part of her husband’s literacy program. She also had the ear of high ranking officials and represented her country internationally … all while raising five children virtually alone.

She recalls how Che initially had to convince her of the merits of Communism — so she obviously has a mind and opinions of her own. In this book’s Afterword, she expresses regret at not having “sufficiently acknowledged many compañeras, women who played a key role in our struggle”, — a statement that hints at feminist leanings. Her omissions are fascinating, much more so than what she chose to include. They make me believe that there is a more interesting version of this story, one told entirely from Aleida March’s perspective. This book, though, isn’t it.

10 Responses

  1. That’s too bad to hear the
    That’s too bad to hear the memoir doesn’t live up to expectations, but it still sounds like an interesting read. Perhaps she has a secret diary hidden away and love letters that will be made public one day.

  2. I have to respectfully
    I have to respectfully disagree that the memoir doesn’t live up to expectations. It met my expectations well – even exceeded them with the photos. I don’t expect a memoir to have extensive analysis of historical events. I expect it to tell me things I did not already know, to fill in the necessary blanks of professional biography.

    Aleida’s memoir gives us a good personal portrait of Che – who, like it or not, was viewed at a “heroic” perspective by many of his contemporaries. It does not provide the salacious details or irrelevant armchair psychoanalysis common to American memoirs, which is perhaps the source of disappointment for some.

    Additionally, since when did words like “imperialism” and “revolutionary” become quaint? When the US became the last imperialist nation, bent on oppressing global social and economic revolution?

  3. Hi Cal,
    I’ve been wanting to

    Hi Cal,

    I’ve been wanting to talk about this book with someone else who read it, so I was happy to see your comment. I think we both agree that the photos are fantastic, but I feel I should clarify the reasons for my disappointment.

    First, I just want to say that I approached this book without a political position on Che, the Castro government or Cuba. I fully expected a “heroic” image of Guevara, particularly as the book is written by the woman who obviously loved him. And I wasn’t looking for salacious details or armchair psychoanalysis. What I did hope for, and expect, was a bit more historical perspective than what was put out there.

    Aleida acted as Che’s personal secretary. She was with him both at home and at work. She participated in the government and obviously interacted with both Fidel and Raul Castro. Why, then, not discuss the Missile Crisis in more detail (for example)? Discuss the work that went into the building of the alliance with the Soviets, go into depth on the reasons why Cuba wanted the missiles, talk more about Che’s visions of a better society that led him all over the world, how did he initially approach Fidel… but Aleida glosses over so many of these events. Perhaps I came in with the wrong expectations or expected too much. This being the first book I’ve read on Che Guevara I wanted more of a contextual background on a man who I truly believe embraced the cause of a new Latin America (not to mention world).

    I can’t help feeling that you saw my review as a criticism of the man and his politics when that was not my intention. In and of themselves words like “imperialism” and “revolutionary” are not quaint. But constant repetition diminishes their meaning/power and certain phrases become contrived. I felt those words and phrases were overused in this book. Perhaps that’s just me. When someone repeats the same phrases and keywords over and over again I begin to feel as if they’re trying to manipulate my opinions – poorly (hence my comparison to Soviet propaganda). And I don’t feel that I’m that far off the mark in this particular instance. Aleida makes a reference in the book to the necessity (and danger) of political rhetoric/dogma after the revolution – so she obviously understands the concept.

  4. Stephanie –
    I’m not sure I

    Stephanie –

    I’m not sure I want to read any more love letters than what she’s already published (and there are a few in the book), but a secret diary would be fascinating!

  5. I have not read the memoir.
    I have not read the memoir. It sounds otiose, and it probably should not have been written. Sounds like someone who wants to divulge some inner things, but remains reticent, as we all are when weighing the virtues of complete transparency in our lives. I think that her nebulosity is understandable. We (Americans) are, after all, still engaged in tenuous relations with Cuba, and tawdry divulgences would only undermine the ethics of a man who obviously had more political integrity than America has historically wanted its citizens to believe. America has a terrible habit of only accepting nations that capitulate to our idea of freedom. We have zero tolerance to ideals that oppose ours, so, at best, we are at an impasse with Cuba. I think that it’s presumptuous and arrogant to even take the view that we ‘tolerate’ Cuba. Alas, this is our country, the greatest power in the world, arguably. We have our merits, we have our weaknesses, just like any other country. But, this is a desultory point. It sounds like Senora Che would like to write a love story about a great man, not only politically, but personally – his love for her and his devotion to the revolution are and were inextricable. But how does one rive the two personalities in order to do that. You cannot very well write a memoir about the man and leave out his ‘revolutionary’ habits or tenets, many of those undoubtedly private, both politically and personally. It would seem shallow, lacking, because it WOULD be shallow and lacking (as the critic of her book has pointed out). You are amputating an entire side of a man and writing about what remains. Impossible. So, I don’t think that it was so much a literary blunder or some evil plan to conceal the contents of Che’s agenda, but a sincere effort to express her love and admiration for a man that is so complex that we are still captivated by him. She, perhaps, is giving a gift to all of us: this is who he was and still is, his personal convictions evidently bolster his political views. The attempt was in vain, but not for any clandestine reason (it seems), so, I think that perhaps to try not to read between the lines for some seedy insights, to read the story with the awareness that the woman who is writing this is writing this with tied hands, not ‘restrained’ by any private wish to throw the reader off the scent of the ‘real’ Che Guevara. Read it as a love story, not a ground breaking memoir that will finally divulge political secrets to the world. It’s ignorant and salacious to approach this book under that premise. America has already (unsuccessfully) painted Che as a murderer and an unprincipled and ignorant warmonger. Do you seriously think that his widow is going to underscore that image by desecrating his integrity and cheapening his values with a tawdry tell-all book? She could not if she tried. America is obsessed with uncovering weakness and reveling in it. We are obsessed with sensationalism and diaphaneity. We like headlines, but we don’t like to read meritorious work. We love it when celebrity figures cheapen themselves so that we can feel powerful. It is a sickness of this country, and one that grows more and more pervasive as we grow technologically smarter. So, it’s not surprising that the critic of the book thinks that all that is left out is more interesting that anything that was written. Granted, I have not read the book, and by the sound of it (my apologies for being redundant) Aleida March would do best by the memory of her husband by safeguarding them, privately, and keeping them precious. I don’t think that it’s worthwhile to read about his private love for his wife (I would never write about something so private, for cathartic reasons, monetary reasons, or any reason) or to interrogate his motives with the intention of finding some fault, which it sounds like the critic wanted to do with this book. We all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that Che’s merits and honor far outweighed any weaknesses that he undoubtedly had by virtue of also being merely a man. I cannot think of many figures in America that I can say the same for, only Dr. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X in his later years. May they rest in peace, not be exhumed in private memoirs that serve no purpose but to amuse the reader.

  6. hi im living in uk and have
    hi im living in uk and have endlessly tried to get a postal address for che guevara studies centre in havana is there any way you can help with this?ive exhausted all avenues it would be very much appreciated

  7. I just want to say that was a
    I just want to say that was a beautifully written response. And I intend to read the widow’s book without judgement.

  8. I enjoyed reading her book,
    I enjoyed reading her book, it showed me two very human people involved in making the world a place for all.

    It was a good introduction into the lives of those leading the Cuban Revolution. People that gave more than their share to end the oppression of the poor and uneducated, their sacrifices, their happiness and sadness and most of all their vision for equality, are told in this edition.

  9. Good review, thank you! It’s
    Good review, thank you! It’s Mumia. Not Mumbia. “Free Mumia.”

  10. Che Guevara was a great man and he would always remembered as a great Revolutionary in history, I read his widow’s book it is very interesting.

    He will never be forgotten in history of Human Beings.

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