Ernesto “Che” Guevara is one of the most hotly contested historical figures in popular political culture.The Argentinean physician turned guerilla leader and Marxist revolutionary has been mulled over by authors, artists and filmmakers, his spirit co-opted by so many ideological, artistic and cultural forces, that it’s difficult to separate his actual biography from — for lack of a better phrase — might be called the Cult of Che.
Even though the life of Ernesto Guevara came to an end in October of 1967, the icon “El Che” lives on through an increasingly bizarre series of sightings and appropriations. Little familiarity with Guevara’s biography is necessary to play this post-modern game, a mash-up of “Where’s Waldo” and Stephen Colbert’s “Who’s Honoring Me Now?” Apart from the four-hour two part epic bio-pic by Steven Soderbergh, Che has made appearances in a Japanese film about a deadly jellyfish (Bright Future), a political advert for PETA, a carton of Australian-made ice-cream (“Cherry Guevara”) and shows up on T-Shirts, coffee mugs, posters and condoms.
Even here in Ithaca — that’s central New York, far from Guevara’s campaigns in Cuba or the Congo — a talented emcee by the name of J-San appropriates Che’s characteristic accoutrement: his bomber jacket, his rhetoric and his hat.
Michael Casey, the Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and a correspondent for Wall Street Journal, sets out to track down the myriad meanings of some of these appropriations in a new book called Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image. Instead of offering a traditional biography, Casey engages in an intellectual history of the Che brand, approaching his subject with an historian’s sense of detail, a historiographer’s sense of a cultural import, and a journalist’s mix of skepticism, awe and mirth. By turns entertaining, thoughtful and scathing, Casey’s work is a satisfying excavation into politics, pop culture and that iconic photo of Che.
Accounts of Guevara’s brief life is not in short supply. In addition to Jon Lee Anderson’s definitive Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Paco Ignacio Taibo’s Guevara, Also Known as Che, Guevara himself offered accounts of various parts of his life through the bestselling memoir of his early years The Motorcycle Diaries, the 1962 Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War and the posthumously published Guerrilla Warfare. So Casey instead turns his lens not on Guevara’s actual life — the 39 year-old was killed in 1967 — but the penumbra that is Che’s aura, centering on a single image of Guevara.
That picture, from a closely cropped headshot of Guevara in iconic jacket and beret taken by a fashion photographer turned photojournalist named Alberto Díaz Gutiérrez but better known as Korda, serves as the leitmotif of Casey’s work. According to the author, authorized and unauthorized reproductions of the image vastly outnumber any other popular photograph, outpacing Marilyn Monroe and her subway grate swept skirt. In addition to its popularity, Casey is bewitched by its elusiveness:
“The most captivating feature of Korda’s photo is Che’s eyes. Che’s piercing gaze gives the image its power as a timeless work of art. Variously described as pensive, serene, determined, defiant, meditative, or implacable, his expression is — like the Mona Lisa’s smile — difficult to put a finger on.”
The first part of the book explores the “making of a global brand,” documenting the rise in significance of Che’s icon, and how Guevara’s death led to the increased popularity of his stature. Though taken in 1960, Korda’s photo was initially “snubbed” by the magazine Revolución and appeared only sporadically until Guevara’s death in ’67. By that time, Che’s reputation had fallen following unsuccessful military campaigns in Africa and in Bolivia, where he was ultimately captured and killed. Che’s Afterlife explores how Korda’s image helped to revive its subject’s legacy.
Following the lengthy backstory of the original photo (Casey devotes as much of his text to Korda’s biography than he does Guevara’s), Che’s Afterlife explores various incarnations of Che’s representation across the globe. Casey, a business reporter, is at his best analyzing branding trends and the way in which Che has been appropriated by political and commercial causes.
A chapter titled “Odysseus” explores competing narratives of Guevara’s biography, a life that after his death was as hotly debated as his image was appropriated. Casey elegantly sorts through the competing mythologies, including the one Guevara himself narrated, emerging with a now well-known complicated picture of a man surely undeserving of blind adoration. Casey’s Che, like Anderson’s (and for that matter Soderbergh’s) is an admirable figure but by no means a saint: he’s violent, volatile and ultimately a failed revolutionary.
These biographical truths do not prevent the widespread adoption of Che as a signifier for competing ideologies. Casey reports that Time Magazine observed in its 17 May 1968 edition, “the Che legend, in giving ‘rise to a cult of almost religious hero worship among radical intellectuals, workers and students,’ had also produced widespread fads across the Western world.” These included “‘Guevara-style beards, berets and handkerchiefs, sweatshirts and blouses decorated with his shaggy countenance’ in ‘half a dozen countries.’” Korda concludes the first part of his book crowing the Korda Che icon as “the quintessential postmodern icon—anything to anyone and everything to everyone.”
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Casey’s strongest work comes in the large middle section of Che’s Afterlife, where the author turns his lens on four countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and the US, to examine how the legend has influenced politics in the last 40 years. Che’s image is adopted by various political movements and has come to mean something different from the “historical Che” Casey profiles in the first third of his book. It is here that the business reporter is balanced by careful research and analysis, and the resulting work is both measured and engaging.
In Argentina, where Augusto Pinochet kept an entire country in a state of constant fear following his violent coup in 1973, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo adopted Che in their weekly vigils on behalf of their disappeared children. Following the lead of the writer and activist Ariel Dorfman, Casey writes:
The historical Che of Cuba could not fit in here: Che’s disdain for individualism and his disciplinarian instincts would clash with Argentina’s laissez-faire ways. But Dorfman’s Che, who breaks down state control in the name of human freedom, does belong. That Che, with his dream of a borderless, unified Latin America, belongs in an anarchic Argentina that has been forced to confront his place in the region, one that its people for too long declined to recognize.
In Bolivia, where Che was assassinated, Casey first discusses symbolism via John Berger, and then plunges into a constitutional struggle that pits a strong central state against an “autonomy” brand whose buzzwords are “market democracy” and “individual rights”. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez and the regional Left promotes another vision of Che. And in Miami, Cuban immigrants dispute contesting views about Che that traffic in extremes rather than nuances.
By the end of his work, Casey is exploring the global presence of Che’s icon, a movement he finds both overwhelming and considerably flawed. Noting an “awkward new alliance between radical Islam and certain Latin American leftists,” Casey is quick to quote Che’s daughter Aleida Guevara, who during a visit to Tehran University noted “‘My father never mentioned God.’”
In the end, Casey suggests that adopting Che, like any other brand, is “a very personal act”. With a tone that appears half awestruck and half skeptical, Casey can’t help but be inspired by devotion to all notions of Che’s legacy. This personal attachment, more than the political result it effects, is of primary significance to the author. Selecting Che, according to Casey “offers a taste of immortality”. The author continues:
Its appeal lies in its spirituality, in its ability to feed people’s longings for a better world and to encourage them to dream of defeating death. It helps them confront that sinister force, whatever shape it takes for them—a military dictatorship; a CEO slashing jobs; an offense against their religion, their sexuality, or their favorite TV channel; or a flooding drainage canal. Against these real and imagined threats, Korda’s Che keeps hope alive.
One can’t help but feel that the author is moved.