Che on My Mind (review)

By Sheyla Hirshon

Book Cover Che on My MindHAVANA TIMES — “This is the story of how Che haunts me,” states Margaret Randall at the outset of her new book, aptly termed “a poet’s reminiscence of an era.”[1].  “His memory draws me to revisit his life, ponder the attraction he exerts long past death and read anew his writings and what others continue to write about him.”[2]

This introduction sets the stage for a series of reflections that alternately encompass personal reminiscence, biography, political analysis, nuggets of historical information, feminist hindsight and even poetry.

As Randall is also well aware, Che haunts many of us, not only Cubans who grew up repeating “Seremos como el Che” (We will be like Che) or those of us who can clearly remember the moment of his death.  “A million portraits painted on walls and cheap T-shirts with his immediately recognizable visage sold in bazaars from Cairo to Siem Riep, and Naples to his own Rosario, Argentina.“[3] Or as Sophia de Mello, the Portuguese poet puts it:

“Before your face
The adolescent meditates in his room
When he seeks to emerge from a world that is rotting.”[4]

In recognizing this fact, Margaret Randall then goes on to ponder some very relevant questions:

Why this obsession with Che’s figure?
Who was he really?
What does his myth say about us?
What can he still teach us about revolutionary change?

Randall gives us a Che of flesh and bones, prone – as all of us are – to the influence of our milieu and the foibles of our own character.  She sums up the qualities that continue to move us: “Touching observations and gestures… his internationalism, his idealism and excessive romanticism…humor, bluntness, commitment, valor, extreme sense of justice…his principled stance with regard to everyday situations and decisions.”[5]

Che, Aleida March and their children.
Che, Aleida March and their children.

At the same time she doesn’t shrink from noting that he was also single-minded, narrowly directed, impulsive and convinced of the necessity of a military hierarchy and the power of arms in achieving social change.

At different moments in the book, Randall sketches for us the Che of the history books: his early history in Rosario, his meeting with Fidel in Mexico, his heroism during the Cuban struggle, his efforts to lead the National Bank and Ministry of Industry in Cuba, his decision to return to armed struggle as an internationalist, first in the Congo and then in Bolivia, and of course, his final, fateful moments.

She fleshes these out with portraits of the women in his life: his mother Celia de la Serna; his first wife Hilda Gadea; Aleida March, his second wife, widely considered the great love of his life; and Haydee Santamaría, his friend and soul-mate.  Tender quotes from his letters to these women (“…I love you as I recall our bitter morning coffee, the taste of the dimple on your knee, a bit of delicately balanced cigar ash…”)[6] remind us of Che’s power of language and extraordinary sensibility.

There is also space devoted to “Benigno”, the young campesino Che taught to read in the Sierra Maestra and who followed him into the final struggle and beyond, much later becoming disillusioned with the Cuban power structure. She touches on, but doesn’t dwell on, this and other controversies Che’s life has spawned: Did Fidel betray him?  Was his death avoidable? Was the Bolivian campaign merely a mistake and a failure?

Randall examines Che’s thoughts, actions and legacy through her own “multiple prisms”: as a feminist; as a participant in later, more decentralized social movements; as a person who questions the value of violence.  She later adds the perspective of religion and of literature.  This is not to say, that she loses her way – to the contrary, she returns time and again to her central questions: Who was Che?  Who might he have become?  What is his true legacy? And the very personal: Why does he still fascinate me?

Margaret Randall with her four children Sarah, Ximena, Ana and Gregory. Havana 1973.

Writer, feminist, journalist, poet, social activist:  Margaret Randall is uniquely suited to address these questions. Born in North America, she traveled to Mexico in the mid-sixties where she and her Mexican husband founded a bilingual literary journal.  She traveled to Cuba in 1967 and then moved there in 1969, remaining there for over eleven years.  Following several years of residency in Nicaragua, she eventually returned to the United States in 1989 after a court battle to regain her citizenship[7].

With well over 100 published works to her credit, she has been a vital participant in enormous, and sometimes violent storms without ever becoming strident, dogmatic, or – its opposite pole – cynical and disillusioned. Though she never met Che, the setting which formed the background to his life is one she is familiar with and well prepared to guide us through.

This book is not at all a political treatise, nor is it a personal memoir. Randall herself compares it to the 30s tune: “Georgia on my mind,” saying that she wishes to evoke that “spirit and wandering rhythm.”[8] To me, the tone and style make it more comparable to a rich, sometimes rambling conversation where moments of intense and passionate conviction alternate with personal anecdotes, insights or unanswerable questions  in a way that is occasionally disconcerting, but more often rewarding.

Some of the most interesting thoughts, questions or nuggets come in unexpected places: the middle of a chapter, towards the end of a paragraph, taking one by surprise.

  • How did Che, with his extraordinary sensibility and vision ever get embroiled in an armed conflict in the Congo where he was a complete outsider, both racially and in his ignorance of their history?
  • How would Che have reacted to the more modern movements for gender and sexual equality?
  • How would Che’s last struggle have been different had he tried to promote revolution in a country where a majority of the population was composed of non-believers rather than one in which so many were possessed of religions superstition?[9]
  • Did the Bolivian campaign – widely considered a failure – have any relation four decades later to the current government of Evo Morales, “one of the most interesting and innovative governments in Latin America today”[10]?
  • How do we weigh the contrast between the eternally rebellious youth embodied in Che’s image and the reality of watching Fidel evolve from dashing guerrillero to frail elder statesman?
  • Is armed struggle ever the path to social change?  Is it ever justified?
  • When we encourage children or adults to be like Che, are we setting the bar too high, giving rise to frustration and failure?
Ernesto "Che" Guevara
Ernesto “Che” Guevara

As with any good conversation, this book leaves the reader stimulated and enlightened with new questions to ponder.  As someone largely familiar with Maragret Randall through her books of interviews, it left me curious to read her more autobiographical work, To Change the World My years in Cuba, as well as to reexamine some of Che’s thought and works.

It also left me with the desire to make contact with all the young people I know, show them Che’s portrait and ask” “Who is this?  What did he do?  What does it mean to you?”

I did wonder from time to time if this book is understandable and accessible to those largely unfamiliar with the details of Che’s life.  Margaret Randall, on the other hand has been very clear that this kind of explaining or education is not her intention with this book.  Instead, we are simply listeners, treated to a very rich personal rendition of her own private tune of Che on my mind.

 


[1] Margaret Randall, Che on my mind (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 1

[2] Randall, Che on my mind, 4

[3] Randall, Che on my mind, 3

[4] Sofia de Mello, “Che Guevara”, in O’Toole and Jímenez, Che in Verse, 240: quoted in: Randall, Che on my mind, 136-7

[5] Randall, Che on my mind, 14-15

[6] Randall’s translation from Aleyda March, Evocació, quoted in Randall, Che on my mind, 45.

[7] Dates courtesy of Wikipedia.

[8] Randall, Che on my mind, 2

[9] Randall, Che on my mind, 117.

[10] Randall, Che on my mind, 97.

(*)  Che on My Mind is published by Duke Press

 


20 thoughts on “Che on My Mind (review)

  • December 15, 2013 at 8:52 pm
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    ah yes, no fair of me quoting Che accurately. Forget his words and focus on his groovy to-shirts.

    Che’s actions were even worse than his words. If you want the full context of the quotes go read his disgusting and mendacious journals.

    Please tell us, what is the correct and reasonable context for such violent hatred?

    By the way, Che hated hippies. They arrested hippies and sent them to UMAP camps along with gays. Keep digging, John, your hole just gets deeper,

  • December 15, 2013 at 8:32 pm
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    The height of ignorance is rejecting that which you know nothing about.
    All your posts that involve socialism or communism clearly show that you do not know what either is.
    You actually think that the Soviets, Chinese , Koreans Cubans etc. were communist when you cannot find a university outside of Oral Roberts that teaches that the Soviet, Chinese etc had a communist society or economy.
    That the preponderance of U.S. citizens are as ignorant as you in this regard does not validate your thinking.
    Further, your support of capitalism and U.S imperialism in enforcing capitalism worldwide is in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ who relegated the wealthy to Hell .
    Your support of the rich/capitalism puts you on the wrong end of this quote from Christ: ” If you refuse those in need, you refuse me”
    In the unlikely event of Christ’s return do you really think he’s going to sit and have lunch with Donald Trump and Bill Gates or you for that matter?
    The people like Fidel and Che who cared for the poor above all have far more in common with Christ than do any U.S. politicians or millionaires and that must really stick in your craw.
    And FYI, and as explained several times, capitalism worldwide is on a long slippery slope into oblivion as, first globalization and ultimately near total automation of the workforce makes it unworkable
    After that the world has a good chance of establishing a global true democracy, economic equity and bringing about the total end of poverty as we know it
    And had you attended classes in economics, political science or philosophy you’d know that that future state is called communism.
    You anti-Christs who espouse capitalism, imperialism and fucking over the poor have less than 20 years left in your reign IMO and in those of some tech geniuses like Ray Kurzweil who heads Google research.

  • December 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm
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    Incredible as it seems, I agree with you on the point you make that we should judge Che by his actions. For example:
    1) Che Guevara is confirmed to have fathered 8 children. He married the mother of 4 of these children, abandoning the others.
    2) He was a self-appointed executioner and rejected formalities like trials.
    3) He left the front lines in many of the revolutionary battles he commanded asserting that he was too valuable to the cause to fall. Look up the word “coward” to understand this one.
    4) Well known for his lack of personal hygiene.
    BTW, lots of people wear Che t-shirts in Miami, Little Havana or Hialeah. You obviously have never been there.

  • December 15, 2013 at 10:03 am
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    America revolution? all you can bring to bear are false moral equivalencies? …talk about intellectually lazy!

  • December 15, 2013 at 9:45 am
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    Who was Che Guevara? Well perhaps we can tell what kind of man, er monster, he was by reviewing some of his actions. One of his visions involved setting up ‘labour camps’, known as the UMAP labour camps, to incarcerate gay people. These were Cuba’s new concentration camps, set up so the new socialist government could rid their nation of homosexuality, which was somehow believed to be a product of capitalism. Gay artists were censored and gay people in government lost their jobs. The UMAP camps subjected homosexuals to brutal torture and some inmates committed suicide. Not only gay men were incarcerated but effeminate men were also imprisoned to make way for Guevara’s scheme of the “new man” which was a hideously pathological homophobic ideology. People who did not fit into this fascist vision were imprisoned without charge or trial and forced to adhere to his notion of masculinity through slave labour. In these camps gay men who had been rounded up were subjected to rehabilitation and re-education

  • December 15, 2013 at 1:26 am
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    Che Guevara strikes me as a man with an authoritarian streak unable of respect for another person’s point of view. To me socialism is about emancipation not bossing everyone else around. Don’t be fooled by those who call themselves socialists. Judge them by their right-wing deeds not their left-wing rhetoric.

  • December 14, 2013 at 11:24 am
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    Those are not the teachings of Christ and neither are they quotes that are provided in context .
    Like Obama , Che must not be taken at his words but by his actions .
    Selected quotes out of context are intellectually unacceptable and the tactics of the intellectually weak .
    For instance, that people are executed extra-judicially in a REVOLUTION is the way violent revolutions work.
    How many British, loyal to King George, went on trial before they were shot DURING the American Revolution ?
    How many hippies with long hair were beaten , had their hair forcibly cut and otherwise punished for their lifestyles in the U.S during the Sixties ?
    Try wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt in Miami or Hialeah TODAY .

  • December 14, 2013 at 9:03 am
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    …apparently not

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