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On 9 October 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara, Marxist guerrilla leader and hero of the Cuban Revolution, was captured and executed by Bolivian forces. When the Guevara family learned from the front pages that Che was dead, they decided to say nothing. Fifty years on, his younger brother, Juan Martin, breaks the silence to narrate his intimate memories and share with us his views of the character behind one of history's most iconic figures. Juan Martin brings Che back to life, as a caring and protective older brother. Alongside the many practical jokes and escapades they undertook together, Juan Martin also relates the two extraordinary months he spent with the Comandante in 1959, in Havana, at the epicentre of the Cuban Revolution. He remembers Che as an idealist and adventurer and also as a committed intellectual. And he tells us of their parents - eccentric, cultivated, bohemian - and of their brothers and sisters, all of whom played a part in his political awakening.
This unique autobiographical account sheds new light on a figure who continues to be revered as a symbol of revolutionary action and who remains a source of inspiration for many who believe that the struggle for a better world is not in vain.
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What on earth does your average 30-something drama graduate know about Che Guevara? Not much beyond the T-shirt print that was sported by boys I fell in love with as a teenager and a passing reference in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. Both things, incidentally, that the author of this book would deplore! Che was killed twelve years before I was even born so I have to admit to a limited understanding of the context of his time of revolution. But this actually makes me an ideal target reader and since I love to learn and love to read, these things I did!
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s younger brother by fifteen years, Juan Martin Guevara aims to humanise his sibling, so the opening chapter of his book covers and builds on the ground that I’m vaguely familiar with. He clearly despises the tendency of society to idolise and capitalise from his brother and his disdain is clear in the passages describing these aspects of Che’s legacy. I felt a bit guilty for my own ignorance!
Juan Martin collaborated with the French journalist Armelle Vincent to write this memoir, so the words originally published in French are now translated into English. As a consequence, some of the colloquialisms can feel a little clunky. This only matters because it’s a very personal book; not a political manifesto and not a documentation of the works and policies of Che Guevara. It’s neither a straight biography nor an autobiography, but seems to exist in two spheres. The first half reads as a window into Juan Martin’s familial memory of Ernesto up to his death. His memories and stories are vibrant and dynamic, depicting a likeable but eccentric chaos of family life.
The second half is where I really started to engage though. Juan Martin lead a fascinating life after his brother’s death, likely because of it. His account of his incarceration as an Argentinian political prisoner is absolutely gripping, and the full and varied life that this man has lived both before and after his prison term is really enlightening reading.
We live in a very different world now to that which Che inhabited, and this is evident in the tone of the seventy three year old Juan Martin’s reflection. The momentum of US led globalisation continues apace, and Juan Martin feels it keenly; indeed it is suggested that this is one of the reasons for his breaking the self imposed silence to which he adhered for nearly fifty years. The book ends before Castro’s death in 2016, before Brexit, before the election of President Trump and the upheaval of the capitalist world that is occurring right now. I’d love to hear his take on it all.
One theme and attitude that is repeated throughout this memoir, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree, is the importance of reading and learning. Juan Martin fears that materialism and social media has damaged our capacity for attention and thought. There’s a very real truth here. Like the Guevaras, I grew up in a house full of books (of varying calibre!) and I want nothing less for my children. Social behaviour is very hard to change in adults - it’s why revolutions resort to violence and guerrilla warfare. But teach our children the capacity to learn and to respect what they have, and perhaps there is a future path away from violent uprising.
Having read Juan Martin’s memoir, I certainly feel that I can see beyond the ‘screen print’ Che to distinguish a real human being who existed as a son, father and brother; although I still don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of his politics. But conveying his brother’s politics wasn’t Juan Martin’s intention here. He wants to make a lasting impression on his readers, and I think he succeeds. This book leaves you with a desire to improve yourself. I would clearly benefit from wanting less stuff, existing less selfishly and from learning more from the past. If nothing else, Che, My Brother has left this reader wondering if perhaps she is a little bit more socialist than she was before.
"The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom. We will always honour his memory." - Nelson Mandela "You know how much I admire Che Guevara. In fact, I believe that the man was not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age: as a fighter and as a man, as a theoretician who was able to further the cause of revolution by drawing his theories from his personal experience in battle." - Jean-Paul Sartre "The discussions that count are those that continue, albeit silently, in thought. In my mind, the discussion with Che has continued for all these years, and the more time passed, the more he has been right. Even today, dying while putting in motion a never ending struggle, he continues, always, to be right" - Italo Calvino "The powerful of the earth should take heed: deep inside that T-shirt where we have tried to trap him, the eyes of Che Guevara are still burning with impatience." - Ariel Dorfman "Juan Martin, who at 72 continues to share his brother's youthful ideals, wants him to be remembered as a human being, not as a myth. His book is a powerful and affectionate testimony to the life behind the legend." - Foreword Reviews