The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara

A few years after his first South American tour, the would-be Argentine revolutionary once again traveled through the continent and farther north. He experienced how the U.S. helped overthrow the democratically elected government in Guatemala, and he gave up on his dream of improving the world as an individual, he abandoned the “isolated action of a person alone in a social environment.” Others had done this before him, throughout human history. In the New Testament’s Acts 2:44-45, it says about the followers of Jesus, “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (KJV)

As he wanted to be part of a collective effort, he joined the Cubans who fought to end the violent oppression of the Batista dictatorship. “The revolution,” he said, “is not, as some claim, a standardizer of the collective will, of collective initiative. To the contrary, it is the liberator of human beings’ individual capacity.”

In Cuba, he became known to the world as Che Guevara, but before the revolution, his friends had known him as Ernesto Guevara – a dedicated and compassionate young medical student, who traveled in Latin America with his friend Alberto Granado. The book Guevara wrote about their travels was published as Notas de Viaje, (Travel Notes) which in a way is a better title than the catchier title,  The Motorcycle Diaries, for the motorcycle breaks down fairly early. So, the two have to find other means of transportation. They walk, they ride trucks, they travel by ship, boat, canoe, and raft. They are at times completely broke, they experience terribly cold nights and hunger, and are by no means tourists. They are explorers, learning about the world as they encounter it. They are young scientists, trying to improve the collaboration between scientists in different parts of this vast expanse of the world. They are social observers with keen minds, connecting the past with the present and envisioning a possible future for Latin America. And they are two young rascals, doing whatever they have to do to feed themselves and find transportation.

Guevara is a strong storyteller. He is candid, exposes his own shortcomings, and never even suggests that he is some kind of hero. His writing is fresh, humorous, and vital, and his sudden shifts of perspective make the tale vivid from start to finish, and in the last chapter his writing is on fire.

Leo Tolstoy once argued – in the context of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia – that great events possess a momentum of their own, independent of the will of individuals. This could help explain how a young, ambitious doctor from Argentina was transformed into a man who described himself as a “small soldier of the 20th century.”

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