Una comunidad abstracta and Te Faruru

Te Faruru

In the past year or two, the young Ecuadorian writer who goes by the name of Salvador Izquierdo has published two works of what I hesitate to call fiction: Una comunidad abstracta (2015) and Te Faruru (2016). Each is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, though the frustration itself is part of Izquierdo’s strategy. Indeed, the more frustrating of the two–the later, longer Te Fararu–is also the more interesting precisely because it outright refuses any simple resolution.

The manifest content of the two books is similar. They consist of a lengthy series of often very short paragraphs detailing facts or offering hypotheses about literary and artistic figures, texts and performances, essentially from modernism to the present. Often the form these paragraphs take is short quotations by or about the figures under discussion. So we have brief (sometimes absolutely telegraphic) musings from or about everyone from Paul Gauguin or Hart Crane to Henry Miller, Elisabeth Bishop, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Susan Sontag, along with a host of other, more obscure denizens or hangers on from the international artistic demi-monde.

The links established among the multitude of characters that thus populate each book are often at first sight tangential, almost random associations. Artists who feature (or don’t) in a book entitled Fifty Twentieth-Century Artists You Should Know (Picasso, twice, but not Ana Mendieta or Robert Crumb). Authors who changed their names (Comte de Lautréamont, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda). Writers or actors who went bald (Philip Larkin, Alfonso Reyes, Ed Harris). Men named Robert (Rauschenberg, Capa, Graves). People who came from, visited, or may have visited, Vancouver (Bill Reid, Malcolm Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut). People from or with some connection to Uruguay, however minimal (Josephine Baker, Joaquín Torres García, Martin Amis). The narrator of Una comunidad abstracta tells us that “it’s not me who’s making these connections” (58). But collectively they begin to establish patterns that respond to the particular preoccupations of this shadowy compiler of apparent trivia: people who had a child at the age of 24 (Robert Hughes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan); “I mention it,” the narrator tells us, “because, whatever else separates us, I too had a child when I was 24” (49).

“What have I said about myself?” asks the narrator of Una comunidad abstracta (86). The answer is both “not much” and “a fair bit.” This is someone concerned with the process of translation, in all its meanings, and in establishing facts while worrying as much about their accuracy as about their relevance: “Errors in books or errors within myself?” he asks about the possibility of mistakes (86). But to “err” is also to deviate, to roam, to travel (and so also to translate). These are definitely “errant” books, which roam widely with no obvious destination or purpose.

Ultimately, Una comunidad abstracta ends up being something of (quite literally) a shaggy dog tale. It seems to revolve around a lost dog, called Fito: “I write these little paragraphs [. . .] for Fito.” But this is both too neat and too unsatisfactory a key to the endless perambulations, meanderings, and circumlocutions that characterize the book. Indeed, surely it’s at best an alibi, or a metaphor for everything else that also escapes such attempts to put an end to the chain of connections and apparent coincidences. Te Faruru hints more directly at what else may lay beyond or beneath the imperfect search for order, for putting everything in its place.

In this more recent book, the narrator (although really nothing is ever narrated) may or may not be the same as in the previous one. But he shares many of the same obsessions. And he shares a little more, too, above all in a series of long footnotes that take up more space on the page as the book progresses. It is in one of these notes, for instance, that he tells us of a grandmother who once gave him a book by Eduardo Galeano, dedicating it to a “great reader” (113)–a compliment, however, that the narrator wishes quickly to disown. And another footnote tells us of a former literature teacher who also gave him a book, this time the collected works of Cavafy, inscribed to an “exceptional person” (126)–but he has to admit that he has lost touch with the teacher, and hasn’t returned to any of the authors he read with her.

In these footnotes, then, Te Faruru‘s reluctant narrator struggles with the slogan “Don’t Look Back” that otherwise reverberates through the main text, in all its various versions from Lot’s Wife to Orpheus to Bob Dylan and Pennebacker’s documentary. After all, the footnotes themselves interrupt the onward flow of the connections and interconnections that comprise the text, each point linked to the other by little more than free association with no attempt to dwell on any moment in particular: “Now I think of it” is otherwise the book’s refrain, like an exercise in ADHD. But in the footnotes lurks the shadow of something that the narrator can’t think about and can’t help thinking at one at the same time. Something that demands a narrator, however much our guide denies that this is what he is: “To relate what I don’t want to relate I’d have to begin much further back, I’d have to put together a story [or history–historia], I’d have to look back, and I don’t feel up to it” (131). Or later: “Again, I’d have to relate certain things that are neither here nor there [que no vienen al caso aquí]. It would be better to come up with a narrative, but I’m no narrator” (141).

But it may just be that the footnotes are pointing out something that’s present also in the main text. For all the injunctions to keep looking ahead, in fact it, too, is full of repetitions and returns. Its last line, after all, declares that “here, where there is nothing but repetition, the same thing happens” (157). And not only does its apparently random flow of consciousness incessantly revisit the same preoccupations, but the themes to which it returns often themselves deal with going back: Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca; and perhaps above all, Torres García’s return to Uruguay after 43 years away. For the narrator’s secret may well, it seems, have something to do with “what happened in Montevideo. To relate that episode in narrative form would shrink what I am holding on to in my memory, which wants to stay there, undisturbed [quieto]” (151). We can doubt, however, that this memory is really so quiet, so undisturbing. For it seems to be what sets in train the entire sequence of fragments that constitutes the book.

The book’s title, “Te Faruru,” is taken from a series of woodcuts made by Gauguin in the South Pacific. It means, we are told, “Here we make love” in the Maori language (81). But Izquierdo’s text is much more restless and unsettled than this title at first sight implies. The book seems to be telling us something, but we don’t know what–and perhaps neither does its author, let alone its (anti-)narrator. Or maybe all that matters is the movement itself, and by willfully frustrating us the text is warning against the childlike impulse to “connect the dots to come up with a figure that at the outset seems hidden” (23). Any story, any narrative, would ultimately be a trap, as arbitrary and at best merely fortuitous as any of the other relations and relatings that constitute these two books. So if we are to make (or find) love, it must be in the context of this uncertainty of the “neither here nor there,” of a concatenation of circumstances and encounters, errors and deviations, in which we happen to find (or lose) ourselves.

Coup in Brazil, Protest at LASA

fhc_golpista

At the annual Latin American Studies Association Congress in New York. This year is the Association’s fiftieth anniversary, and as part of the celebrations they planned a special event in which former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso would discuss democracy in the region.

But in Cardoso’s own country, democracy is in trouble, as President Dilma Roussef of the Worker’s Party (PT) has been impeached in circumstances that are dubious at best. And as Perry Anderson notes, in his essential article “Crisis in Brazil”, Cardoso doesn’t exactly have the cleanest of hands in the mess:

Due to preside over the case against Dilma on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was Gilmar Mendes, a crony Cardoso had appointed to the Supreme Court, where he still sits, and who has never made a secret of his dislike of the PT. But Dilma was lesser prey. For Cardoso, the crucial target for destruction was [former PT President] Lula, not simply for reasons of revenge, however much this might be savoured in private, but because there was no telling, given his past popularity, whether he might be capable of a political comeback in 2018 – when, if Dilma survived till then, [Cardoso’s party] the PSDB should otherwise be able to count on steering the country back to a responsible modernity.

There’s more, much more. Read the whole article. (David Miranda offers a rather briefer sketch in The Guardian.) But the point is that Cardoso is hardly the person to be lecturing anyone about democratic process.

So various petitions were circulated, calling on LASA to withdraw its invitation. Rather than doing so (and defending its decision on the grounds that it “cannot endorse a particular side”), the organization apparently simply changed the title of the session. But in any case, for whatever reasons of his own, a couple of days before the congress was due to begin, the former president indicated that he was no longer able to attend.

Still, the banners had already been painted, the t-shirts printed, so a brief demonstration took place nonetheless, as the photo above indicates. “FHC Golpista” translates as something like “Cardoso, coup-mongerer.” In some ways it’s a shame that Fernando Henrique ultimately chose to decline his invitation; it left the protest a little at a loss. More generally, though, as the Left is in crisis throughout the region (voted out in Argentina; impeached in Brazil; in meltdown in Venezuela) it’s good to remember that, whatever the undoubted failures of left-wing parties and leaders, there are always external forces looking for their chance to pounce.

The Country Under My Skin

Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Gioconda Belli ends her “memoir of love and war” with the electoral defeat of the Sandinista revolution and her subsequent move to the USA with her American husband, a journalist whom she’d met while he was covering the Nicaraguan conflict. As she points out, this transition represents the culmination of something like a personal “revolution” in the old-fashioned (and original) sense of a return to the former state of things: “Had my life come full circle? (358). Indeed, when she arrives in Los Angeles and moves into “a house that was exactly like the homes of all [her] teenage friends in Managua: one-story, 1960s-style, with straight lines, a yard in the back,” she muses that she “felt like [she] was back in the past after such a long, circuitous trip through so many other dimensions. [. . .] Funny, I thought, that my life would take such twists and turns. But I remained the same” (362).

What, however, does it mean to “remain the same” in this context? For no sooner does she note the remarkable similarities between the US West Coast and the tranquil suburbia of her own privileged childhood than she also starts to mark the differences between North and Central American cultures. When the Santa Monica earthquake hits in 1994, for instance, she observes that her neighbours “shared a legacy of civic trust and public safety that [she] completely lacked” (364). Whereas they “were confident that their houses were well built, that the firemen would always answer their call, that the police were there to help them,” by contrast she “was frightened by the possibility of anarchy and chaos” (365). Or, rather less flatteringly to the US, she notes the “tanned, muscular men and women” around her, devoted to “healthy diets” and personal self-discipline (366), and she waxes nostalgic about the energies that, in Nicaragua, she has spent in pursuit of a collective project, “the exaltation and joy that comes from joining others in the effort to change the world” (367). Seeing her fellow citizens “with bottles of Evian water tucked under their arms” she thinks back to the days when she “transported weapons, carried a machine gun on [her] shoulder” and asks herself “if [she is] the same person.” “I can’t help but wonder,” she writes, “if a stroke of fate granted me not one but two lives” (366).

A memoir tends to assume–better yet, it actively constructs–a unitary subject, the first-person “I” that stitches together a diverse range of experiences and unites them under the sign of the same grammatical subject. But this is a memoir about a self that, more than many others, frequently flirts with dissolution and division. Or rather, perhaps, with multiplication: not one, but two; not even two, but many. Indeed, at the very outset of the book Belli notes that it was her “destiny to be drawn to the warmth of the crowds” (ix). And it is this impulse that perhaps explains both aspects of what is from the start a dual autobiography: of love and war. For her “response to the multitude” leads her to seek to break out of the stifling cocoon of bourgeois feminine comfort in which she is raised, and (as she puts it) to be “attracted to the world of men, biological functions and domestic life notwithstanding” (ix). Her twin passions, then, are political activism and, well, passion itself. For this is an account of her involvement with the revolution by way of a series of romantic relationships with the powerful men who lead it. Yet these two impulses are as likely to tear her apart as they are to reinforce or strengthen each other.

To take only the most dramatic example: the initial triumph of the Revolution in July 1979 almost passes Belli by. For she is involved in a somewhat torrid affair with a senior Sandinista comandante, “Modesto” (Henry Ruíz), who forms part of the initial National Directorate, and she finds that her “obsession” for him “possessed [her] and robbed [her] of the elation and novelty of that period.” As she puts it: “I did not breathe in the crisp, fresh air of rebirth that was pervasive in those first few weeks. [. . .] Such maddening, all-encompassing love monopolized all my senses and robbed me of energy” (259). Yet soon and unsurprisingly enough, as part of a litany of accounts of the ways in which revolutionary men take women for granted, Modesto discards her. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit his image. So just as the “real revolution” then begins with the first literacy crusade, so Belli’s own personal revolution (now in the sense of change, rather than restoration) can only truly be launched once she realizes that her “love for him was like a disease that was slowly consuming [her, that] if [she] didn’t exorcise him from [her] body, [her] identity would slowly burn away into nothing” (288).

Ultimately, what’s interesting about this book is the way in which it remains torn, incomplete or (perhaps better) excessive. Belli tells us at almost the same time both that her goal is “reconciling [her] two lives” (x) and that she has “discovered the joy that comes from surrendering the ‘I’ and embracing the ‘we'” (xi). I rather doubt both these propositions, however serene (or sometimes more banally self-justifying) the net her recollections cast over her past adventures. There is in fact as much anxiety as joy over the dissolution or multiplication of the self. And there is much here that is unresolved, even unexplored or insufficiently analyzed. We don’t, in the end, get all that far “under [Belli’s] skin,” or rather what is presented as depth is too often sentimental and glib. But she knows this. Or perhaps it is the book itself that betrays her and stands as evidence that the revolution with all its threatening disarray continues, la lucha sigue.

See also seduction.

Fire from the Mountain

If Zhou Enlai’s famous (if possibly apocryphal) comment about the impact of the French Revolution–it’s “too soon to say”–tells us that Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term, this is surely as true of their origins as of their legacies. To put this another way: it’s as hard to determine when a Revolution starts as it is to know when it has come to an end. At issue here is (again) the temporality of Revolution and its relation to history. One view is the revolutions are events, punctual interventions in history that transform or even overturn our sense of historical destiny. Hence they can be dated, often quite precisely: 1776 (the USA); October 1917 (Russia); January 1, 1959 (Cuba); July 17, 1979 (Nicaragua). These dates are historical caesurae. They mark the points at which the old order collapses and the new begins. As such, they slice up history: nothing afterwards is quite the same as what went on before.

Another view is that revolutions are best seen as processes. 1776, 1917, 1959 (etc.) mark only the beginnings of a series of changes that have their own histories and may advance or be betrayed, depending on the balance of forces and struggles that continue long after the initial taking of power. But surely these dates also mark the culmination of (perhaps) increasingly coordinated efforts to up-end the status quo and bring about new forms of society. Sometimes key events are cited as precursors. For colonial North America, for instance, the 1773 “Boston Tea Party” is celebrated as a key moment in the movement that led to independence. In a rather different way, for Russia the Revolution has been dated from Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in April 1917. But in each case perhaps it would be better to look further back: for instance to the formation of the “Sons of Liberty” in 1765 for the Thirteen Colonies, or to the establishment of the Bolshevik party in 1903 for what would become the USSR. But the establishment of these groups was itself the outcome of prior discontent and protest. How far back do you go?

In El Salvador, for instance, we might say that the (ultimately, failed) revolution there began with the creation of the FMLN in October, 1980, or with the formation of its constituent parts as small, revolutionary groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Alternatively, it’s arguable that the movement led by the FMLN in the 1980s began in 1932 (with the failed Communist uprising in the West of the country) in 1832 (with Anastasio Aquino’s indigenous revolt against the postcolonial creole elite) or even in 1524 (with resistance to the Spanish conquest at the Battle of Acajuctla). And other Latin American countries have similar histories of resistance and rebellion, to which subsequent revolutionary groups often pay homage in the names they choose for their organizations: the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, for instance, honours a hero of 1932; the Uruguayan Tupamaros gesture to the 1780 revolt against the Vice Royalty of Peru, led by Túpac Amaru II; and in Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front commemorates Augusto Sandino and his resistance to the country’s occupation by US Marines in the 1920s and 1930s.

Cabezas, Fire from the Mountain

It is in this context, then, that we can understand the aim of Omar Cabezas’s Fire from the Mountain: it sets out, consciously or otherwise, to establish the Sandinistas’ historical legitimacy. For, especially from the point of view of outsiders, the Nicaraguan Revolution appeared to come from nowhere. The final campaign that brought down the dictator Somoza was astonishingly brief, a matter of months rather than years. Previously, the FSLN had been known only for what was in effect merely a relatively high-profile publicity stunt: taking a number of prominent hostages as a house party in December 1974, a feat that they successfully repeated, on a grander scale, at the Nicaraguan Congress in August 1978, less than a year before their eventual triumph. Otherwise, though founded in 1961, the Sandinistas were effectively unknown–not surprisingly, as for more than a decade their numbers never rose much above a few hundred, they represented hardly any military threat to the regime, and they were consistently on the verge of being wiped out by Somoza’s security forces.

Yet Fire from the Mountain is dedicated to this period when the FSLN was unheralded, marginal, and ineffective, rather than to their tumultuous final campaign and ultimate victory. It’s notable, for instance, that in the entire period of his guerrilla experience that the book covers, Cabezas never sees combat and not once does he fire his gun in anger. Indeed, it’s not clear that he fires his gun at all, except to kill a monkey to eat. The nearest he comes to direct action is when, encircled by the National Guard, he and a fellow Sandinista “backed off, firing two shots, and started running like hell” (166). Meanwhile, the book charts what could be described as a series of catastrophes and failures, including the death of one of the more prominent guerrillas in the aftermath the only armed action that is described (at a distance), the shambolic break-up of a training camp for which Cabezas is military director, and most significantly what is in effect the annihilation of the group’s entire network of collaborators and safe houses in the North of the country. So when at one point the revolutionaries’ entire Northern leadership shows up at a house in the middle of the night (175), it is because there is basically nobody else left, and they have nowhere else to go.

None of this matters, however, and not merely because the book was written and published (in 1982) well after the Sandinistas’ eventual triumph. The point is that the narrative ends not with the revolutionary victory itself, but with the moment at which Cabezas (feels that he) can establish a continuity with the struggle of Sandino himself, forty years earlier. This comes just after Cabezas writes at length of a feeling of historical disjuncture, that the FSLN exists somehow outside of history, when he notes that life for his hometown (León), his mother, and the rest of his family goes on regardless while he is up on the hills: “León and my house had continued on quite independently of whether I was there or not. [. . .] That confused me. I had lost my bearings in space and time” (214). He continues: “I cam from somewhere else, from living something else. Something snapped–my head was a whirl of space and time that I couldn’t get straightened out. What I did feel was my own absurdity. Because I couldn’t make sense of the two dimensions of time” (215). Revolutionary time and historical time seem at odds in this profound crisis, which is only resolved subsequently, when Cabezas meets an elderly peasant, Don Leandro, who had fought with Sandino himself some two generations previously.

At first it is Don Leandro’s sense of temporality that seems decidedly shaky. He sees Cabezas’s pistol and asks “what did you do with the other weapons” (217) only for it to emerge that he is talking about Sandino’s own weapons. “For him, that moment he had preserved and which had grown old was an instant that lasted forty years” (217). But it is precisely the longevity of this “instant” that enables a connection between the guerrillas of the 1970s and the original Sandinistas to whom their name gives homage. Cabezas tells us all of a sudden that he is now “touching Sandino [. . .] touching history” (218). The time of the revolution can now be aligned with historical time, as a filial continuity is established between old Don Leandro and Cabezas himself, a fatherless son: “It was as if it had never been interrupted, as if all this were a continuation of what [Leandro] had lived through with Sandino. [. . .] I started to feel that Don Leandro was the father, and I realized that in fact he was the father. [. . .] And never did I feel more a son of Sandinismo, more a son of Nicaragua than at that moment” (218, 221). The FSLN thus establishes an origin and a historical justification for a contemporary struggle that otherwise seems misaligned with the time of the people, and of the city. They usurp a national temporality, making themselves heirs to history: “It was history, the honor of the people, the historical rebellion of the people.” No longer absurd, “that, in essence, was the reality” (220).

The revolution belatedly establishes its origin, only through the struggle itself–only, in other words, after the fighting has already begun. But once that origin is established, then for Cabezas the battle is already won. There is no need to show the triumph of 1979. The point is to be able to assert that he “was walking on something concrete.” Cabezas continues: “I was rooted in the earth, attached to the soil, to history. I felt invincible” (221). With that, no more needs to be said, and the book comes to an end, because it has finally found its beginning.

The Bolivian Diary

The Bolivian Diary

Che Guevara’s career as a revolutionary ended not with a bang but a whimper. There were just seventeen men left in his guerrilla band when, in early October, 1967, they were cornered in a remote ravine in Southeastern Bolivia. Che’s rifle was damaged in the engagement, so he didn’t even have the satisfaction of going down fighting. In the heat of battle, as Bolivian soldiers closed in on his position, he is said to have called out “I’m Che Guevara! I’m worth more to you alive than dead.” But the Bolivians didn’t think so: they captured him alive only to execute him the next day, in the nearby hamlet of La Higuera. Then they tied his body to the skids of a helicopter and flew it to the town of Vallegrande, where they washed it down in the local hospital laundry before inviting the press and curious locals alike to come in and gawk. Contemporary film footage shows many people holding their noses as they circle the cadaver. Either the corpse had already begun to decay or, just as likely, despite the washing it still stank from the previous eleven months of privations and sickness. After its hands were cut off and kept (to ensure fingerprint evidence in the case of doubters or official Cuban denial), the rest of the body was then unceremoniously buried.

Che Guevara corpse

It had been clear for a while that the Bolivian campaign was doomed–and not just because Che had lost his boots almost a month previously, as his diary notes (231). There had been multiple signs of the coming disaster: the guerrilla army had split into two parts, which had lost touch with each other; all contact with La Paz and Havana had also long since been lost, not that there had been much of an urban network in place (while some argue that for his part Castro was happy to abandon Che to his fate); deserters had offered up valuable information to the Bolivian authorities; as a result, the guerrillas’ base camp and supplies had been discovered and destroyed; short of medicine, Che found his asthma attacks more and more burdensome; other members of his group were also ill and increasingly malnourished. Above all, despite a string of small but significant military victories earlier in the year, the guerrillas had steadily lost fighters without managing to attract a single new recruit from the local peasantry. Far from establishing trust and sympathizers among the people, they were consistently greeted with fear and suspicion. Instead of establishing the conditions for a general revolutionary uprising, Guevara’s ill-judged enterprise brought his entire foco theory of guerrilla warfare into disrepute.

It might be argued that the problem was a failure to achieve (anything close to) hegemony. But there’s no doubt they tried: though there’s not much in the way of ideological exhortation in Che’s own diary entries, the group’s various communiqués “to the Bolivian people” are classics of their genre, appealing (for instance) “to workers, peasants, intellectuals, [. . .] everyone who feels that the time has come to confront violence with violence [. . . to] raise the standard of living of our people, who grow hungrier every day” (266). And it may even have been true, as Che notes, that “the legend of the guerrilla force [was] acquiring continental dimensions” (203). But this was no way sufficient. Even within the group itself, Che was aware of and no doubt played off his own personal mystique (early on, upon “discovering [his] identity,” one of his men was so taken aback that he “almost drove into a ditch” [35]). But the small band of revolutionaries was still wracked with dissent and infighting, as Che records on an almost daily basis: the Bolivians complained that the Cubans were treated too favourably; people stole food or didn’t pull their weight; everybody got on each others’ nerves. Given the circumstances, it’s amazing that there were not more deserters, especially as the situation got more and more dire. By the final weeks, they must have known that they were dead men walking. Yet the pathos of it all is that still they walked.

There is something admirable–pathetic as much in the sense that it inspires pathos–in such dedication and self-sacrifice. Almost all the Cubans on the expedition (and whatever the communiqués said about this being a home-grown rebellion, they made up almost half the total number of combatants) had senior posts within the revolutionary apparatus. Joaquín, Marcos, Rolando, and Rubio were all members of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party. Alejandro and Pachungo had held top positions in the Ministry of Industry. Many had already fought with Che in the Congo. They had no need to be here. Nor, of course, did Che himself. And yet they went, and endured the most awful conditions: surviving on a diet of horsemeat, rotten cat meat, tapir, and whatever they could forage or hunt; forever exhausted as they traversed the most inhospitable of terrain, scrambling up cliffs and fording rivers (Che continually records the ever changing altitude), hacking through undergrowth; getting so sick as when Che passed out from his diarrhea and woke up “covered in shit like a newborn baby” (154); generally living in extreme squalor and discomfort, such that Che notes he goes six months without a bath (232). And yet they continue to believe that “this type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men” (208). In the end, though–and passing over the not inconsiderable number of soldiers they kill, even in this failed campaign–one is led to borrow a phrase (from Pierre Bosquet, on the Charge of the Light Brigade) and say: C’était magnifique. Mais ce n’était pas la Revolution.

Che

Che poster

Steven Soderbergh’s Che is far from being a conventional biopic. There is, for instance, little to no back-story: no sequences of a young Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, for instance; no narrative of his politicization; no details of his home life, his wife and family. It’s not as though there is not space enough to flesh out these aspects of Che’s life: taken together, the two films that constitute Soderbergh’s epic make up four and a half hours of screen time. But they focus rigorously on two military campaigns: the (successful) Cuban revolution of 1956 to 1959; and the (disastrous) Bolivian campaign of 1966 to 1967, at the end of which Che was captured and summarily executed. Moreover, in telling the tale of these two episodes, though the spotlight is always on Che, there is hardly anything in the way of introspection or interior monologue. We almost always see our hero from without, and he is consistently aloof and distant. One of the most famous images of the twentieth-century remains resistant to the gaze. Or as the New York Times put it, “the film is [. . .] in a very precise and unusual sense, an action movie. I don’t just mean that it is heavy on battles and gunfights, but rather that action–what people do, as opposed to why they do it–is its primary, indeed obsessive concern.” This is, then, less the story of a life than the sketch of a man in movement, a body in motion amid the chaotic interactions, the complex struggles that (may) lead to widespread social change.

Yet even the depiction of these struggles is curtailed: the first film, which deals with Cuba, stops while Che is still (we are told) 186 miles short of Havana. The triumphant arrival in the capital is eliminated. This despite the fact that, shortly beforehand, we see Che respond to a fellow fighter who asks if, the revolution now won, he can go home to his family. “No,” Che replies. “We only won the war. The Revolution begins now.” As such, then, what the movie presents is not so much the revolution itself as the pre-requisites for revolution. Almost everything else is methodically stripped away, in favour of a strangely unemotional examination of the ways that a revolutionary movement either expands and increases its power and its resonance (in the Cuban case) or contracts and dissipates (in the Bolivian example). Che is the nucleus of these films, but in the sense that his own theory of insurrection understood the role of the guerrilla foco: that what matters is what accretes around it, its capacity to affect its surrounding milieu, rather than any essence that it may have of its own accord.

The second half of the movie (its second part: Che: Part Two or Guerrilla) is more meticulous in its commitment to this principle, and to presenting us its action consistently and solely “in the present tense” (as Roger Ebert observes). Here, the linear chronology of its source, Che’s Bolivian Diary, is respected, and what’s more there are relatively few cutaways to what is happening beyond the (ever-diminishing) sphere of action of Che’s own guerrilla band. The first half (Che: Part One or The Argentine) oscillates between the guerrilla campaign itself and two later brief episodes in Che’s life, both set in 1964 (and both shot in grainy black and white): a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and an interview in Havana with US journalist Lisa Howard. As such, this part of the film–again, perhaps in sympathy with its source, Che’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War–allows itself the luxury of, if not introspection, then at least a measure of retrospection. Even in Manhattan, though, Che remains very much the guerrilla commander. Not simply sartorially, in his beret and fatigues surrounded by men in suits and ties, but also in his relations both with his own entourage and with the US high society, UN dignitaries, or the crowds, whether hostile or supportive, that follow him wherever he goes. Throughout, he is unperturbed and unflappable, unhesitatingly direct, and at most ironically amused by the fuss he consistently occasions.

In short, Soderbergh’s film bucks Hollywood conventions most significantly in its determination to present affect shorn of emotion. This is a movie that refuses triumph (in part one) and tragedy (in part two) alike. We never particularly warm to Che, but nor does he inspire (say) fear or disgust. This is the portrait of an individual, but not of a subject with whom we might empathize or identity. Here, affect is always a matter of the correlation of forces, the concatenation and interaction of bodies in motion. Even in the climactic scene at the end of the second part, which gives us perhaps the only point-of-view shot in the entire four and a half hours, extraordinarily from the viewpoint of Che as he dies on the floor of a Bolivian shack, we feel, I think, that this is a thoroughly impersonal death. It’s as though it served to disprove Che’s (alleged) last words, his claim to transcend the individual body: “Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man.” For in fact those bullets did indeed put an end to a Revolution. Which is not to say that another could not arise elsewhere, some other time, around some other nucleus or foco.

Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla Warfare

“An army marches on its stomach,” said Napoleon (or maybe it was Frederick the Great; it’s unclear). But in Guerrilla Warfare, Che Guevara is keen to remind us that an army also marches, rather more prosaically, on its feet. For he repeatedly stresses the importance of shoes, “one of the fundamental accessories in the struggle” (83). “Above everything else,” indeed, it is a vital necessity that a guerrilla army “have adequate shoes” (29). These should be “of the best possible construction” and “one of the first articles laid up in reserve” (50). After all,

it is not possible for a troop to walk without shoes in wooded zones, hilly, with many rocks and thorns. It is very difficult to march without shoes in such conditions; only the natives, and not all of them, can do it. The rest must have shoes. (102)

No wonder that one of the very first tasks of the guerrilla army, once it has liberated even the most limited of zones, is to establish “shoe factories” that “can initially be cobbler installations that replace half-soles on old shoes, expanding afterwards into a series of organized factories with a good average daily production of shoes” (29). Along with an armory, this is one of the “two fundamental industries” a rebel army has to establish–and in fact, it is mentioned in first place (102). Not just for the human combatants, what’s more. The mule train also “should be well supplied with shoes” (85).

These comments on cobbling indicate the practical nature of Che’s guide to guerilla strategy and tactics. Nothing is too mundane to go unsaid. He equally notes the importance, for instance, of salt, and methods of procuring it. There are discussions of how to string a hammock, and how much underwear a fighter should carry (answer: not much). More obviously to the point, there are diagrams outlining how to make a device that can launch Molotov cocktails and how best to train new recruits in target practice without great expenditures of precious ammunition. This is a manual for the would-be revolutionary that leaves little to chance.

But more than this, the focus on footwear is a clue to the specificities and idiosyncrasies of what we’d now call “unconventional warfare.” For “the basic tactic of the guerrilla army is the march,” which is also why “neither slow men nor tired men can be tolerated” (119). The guerrilla band is relentlessly on the move: its “fundamental characteristic [. . .] is mobility” (18). It always attacks far from its base, and is prepared to retreat if necessary. At times it “can dedicate itself exclusively to fleeing from an encirclement”; at other times “it can also change the battle into a counter-encirclement” (19). The guerrilla constantly changes front, redefines the lines of combat, advances, steps back, circles around, advances again. No wonder Che compares tactics in the field to a “minuet” (19). Creativity and innovation are at a premium: “Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight” (20-21). The all-important shoes have as much in common with ballet slippers as with hiking boots. As well as mobility, guerrilla warfare requires extreme flexibility. The guerrilla must be prepared to turn, side-step, glide, perform arabesques, and then melt away, always en pointe, in a heightened state of awareness.

The foco theory at the heart of Guevara’s book has long been much maligned. The notion that a small vanguard of rural fighters can create the conditions for its own success failed dismally in many Latin American countries, not least in Bolivia under Che himself. Not many people will now be taking this book as the practical guide that it was initially intended–even though it was anxiously examined as much by the would-be experts in counter-insurgency as by trigger-happy leftists. But there’s still surely something for revolutionaries to learn here on a more abstract level. For instance about the importance of space, of knowing the lay of the land, and finding suitable terrain that best aids your cause and disadvantages your enemy. But also the importance of timing, of the tactic of surprise, of knowing when to break off an engagement and regroup. Or the observation that it is the enemy that will be the best source of your ammunition (another reason why shoe factories are if anything more vital than armories), that nomadic adaptability outweighs even the virtues of ascetic purity and sacrifice that the book also (and less convincingly) preaches.

For if Emma Goldman complained that “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” a contemporary Che might respond that the Revolution itself should be a dance, playful and joyous. So go get your shoes.