“I am an Argentinian, Cuban, and also Bolivian. I belong nowhere, but everywhere.” — Che Guevara.
No other words describe the legendary revolutionary better than his own. Over 40 years after his death, his controversial yet heroic life continues to fascinate people across the world. From East to West, North to South, cutting across political boundaries, Che Guevara is a symbol of rebellion, courage and determination.
Illustrated by Chie Shimano in Japan’s traditional manga (comics) style and storyline by Kiyoshi Konno, Che Guevara: A Manga Biography, is a laudable attempt to present the life history of the greatest revolutionary of all time in a simple, illustrated, graphic form. And why so is evident from the first page itself — when the authors introduce a group of youth wearing Che’s face on T-shirts. On questioning who the man is, however, they are clueless. Upon further probing, one replies that he is wearing it because, well, the man looks cool.
In the following pages, it is this “coolness” — almost of a rockstar cult — that the authors decide to probe, and reveal the flesh and blood version of the man behind the iconic images on T-shirts and posters.
A word of advice in the very beginning: do not attempt to find new, meaningful revelations in this book. It borrows heavily from Guevara’s own diaries (1, 2, 3) and already published biographies on him. It is just a simple attempt to retell the story of the brave man, who lived his life according to his beliefs always and fought and died for others. There have been numerous books and movies on Che Guevara’s life and struggles, including Che and The Motorcycle Diaries. Therefore, this book is by no means an attempt to better any of those, more so because of its limited scope in its illustrated form.
The book starts in 1928 with birth of Ernesto Guevara De La Sarna. It doesn’t delve much into his childhood other than the fact that he was asthmatic and didn’t give into authoritarian set ups easily, even in school. As a young adult, it talks of his intention of studying medicine and a tour of the South Americas he went on with his rugby coach and close friend Alberto Granados. It is said this seven-month journey changed his whole perception about life. He came back, finished his studies and left home and family within 25 days of graduating. As the book says, except for a one-day trip eight years later, Guevara never landed on Argentinian soil again.
The rest of the book talks of his much-talked-about and well-known encounter with Fidel Castro in Guatemala, how the duo developed a bonding that would last life long, at least for Guevara, and how Castro and his handful of 81 followers crossed the sea in a broken-down cabin cruiser to land in Cuba. From here, it chronicles how the rebels overthrew the Batista regime. It delves briefly into the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missiles crisis and the political crises of the time before talking about his restlessness (and disenchantment?) with his life in Cuba and his final journey to Bolivia where he was killed trying to instigate a revolution to overthrow the US-backed regime.
The book could be criticised for being totally one-sided or not detailed enough. It could also be said it doesn’t delve enough into the so-called inconsistencies into Che Guevara’s own beliefs. But again, it is not a political commentary of the times, neither does it pretend to be so.
But what is perhaps frustrating is how these historically significant and interesting periods and events have been crunched into one or two pages instead of detailing. It is a similar case with Guevara’s life. While pages have been spent on less insignificant incidents like Guevara meeting his family in disguise, it doesn’t do justice to many things like his relationship with his parents or his first wife Hilda. While in the end of the first chapter he tells Granados that he would go back to Argentina to finish his study in medicine because he had promised his mother, it doesn’t explain then why he leaves home suddenly, and even though he does to find his calling, why he doesn’t keep in touch with his parents, especially his mother, who is shown to have doted on him. Or why would he write to his parents “…I have loved you very much… and I think that sometimes you did not understand me.” His sudden falling out of love with his first wife Hilda is also abrupt. So is his leaving Cuba finally.
What is also irritating is the sudden background lessons in history, without any attempt to weave it into the story and then again sudden reappearance of the characters as the story picks up pace. Add to that the sketchy character designs, heavy talking scenes and some drawings looking very similar to the Pokemon characters on Cartoon Network. If the attempt is to woo the uninitiated readers, these could be quite a drawback.
That said, it is perhaps still an easy read, devoid of the dogmas surrounding the man who has been named by the Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century and whose photograph of Alberto Korda entitled Guerrillero Heroico declared as “the most famous photograph in the world”.
And I knew the authors had succeeded when I saw my seven-and-half-year-old son picking up the book and actually reading it cover to cover.