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Book Talk: Che Guevara, the merchandised revolutionary

Three decades of reporting in some of the world's bloodiest warzones prepared Jon Lee Anderson well for writing his best-selling biography of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
/ Source: Reuters

Three decades of reporting in some of the world's bloodiest warzones prepared Jon Lee Anderson well for writing his best-selling biography of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

Along the way, he battled reputations, myths and deeply-ingrained legends to chronicle the truth.

As part of years of research and interviews in Cuba, Argentina, the U.S. and Russia, Anderson convinced Che's widow, Aleida, to grant him access to a trove of previously unseen material, including Che's private diaries and personal library.

What Anderson produced is heralded as the definitive guide to one of the most well-known yet misunderstood figures of the 21st-century, revered by some, reviled and condemned by others.

Anderson, 54, spoke about Che and his book on the sidelines of the recently-concluded DSC Jaipur Literary Festival, at which the Che biography was feted.

Q: How did you and Che become acquainted?

A: "I wanted to go to war, first as a fighter, but it became increasingly more and more as an observer. War is the defining experience of human nature.

"I had a fascination for those up in the mountains, as it were, beyond the pale, creating an existence for themselves. After traveling the world, twice, I realized there was someone I kept bumping into. And that person was Che.

"He was the personification of a saint for those fighters out there. I even found a communist-hating mujahedeen with a photo of Che in his wallet."

Q: Your book has been described as the definitive biography. Do you think he was incorrectly chronicled before?

A: "There was an uncertainty about Che. In Cuba, there was a decision taken to resuscitate him, as a symbolic figure, pretty much an empty vessel.

"They began to realize the appeal he had to transgenerational and transcultural people, realizing this could be a way for Cuba to sell itself. Che represented the golden heyday. Somehow he's the validation of the idealism. It's an extraordinary case of - and this is a crass term to use - branding success.

"An active Cuban intelligence agent, a veteran who knew Che, spoke to me, on a street, at night, side-by-side. He chose his words very carefully. He said 'You will understand what I mean by this. Che's death helped us a great deal, because it gave us a martyr that we didn't have. The revolution can rise from the ashes, Che is our phoenix.'

"They became aware of his religiosity, and they exploited it."

Q: Your book is a factual account of the fictionalized man?

A: "Yes, of course he has been abused in some ways, he has been merchandised. Everyone has taken a piece of Che for their own ends. I wanted to put the flesh on his body. The nuns who laid him down and washed his dead body said that he looked like Christ. But is that the world putting that imagery on him?

"Che's legacy is a composite phenomenon, only part concoction. Today he's on T-shirts, so of course we are cynical. But there's something different about him. He isn't Jimi Hendrix, he isn't Marilyn Munroe, but in a way he created the world that created them."

Q: How important was it to ignore Che the saint when writing the biography?

A: "I'm not of the generation that had a poster of Che on the back of their college room door. I went through different stages, and I think they are integral to being a biographer. I began with fascination. Within that, there was surely attraction. He has attractive qualities. There was a period of time when I felt I needed to wear his skin. It was a necessary immersion for a biographer.

"Then there was a period of time when our paths diverged, so to speak. When he became very doctrinaire, very severe in his ideological beliefs. It was a period of separation, which came with the writing."

Q: Why do you think Che's widow opened his world to you?

A: "She claimed that there were certain things he didn't want published. But he had left her with pretty much manuscript-ready stuff. She didn't know how to proceed (with Che's legacy). She was an autonomous person.

"The implicit power of being Che's widow is if she was to break with the system and leave, that would be extraordinary. Many people have left, many have defected: Che's widow never did. I think she made her calculations. There were people that didn't want me doing it, and made my life difficult. She took a gamble. Without her, it would have been a very different book. I wouldn't have had access to Che's thoughts, previously unknown thoughts.

Q: Your next project is a biography of Fidel Castro. Has Cuba got under your skin?

A: "Over time, I have come to realize what an extraordinarily influential figure Fidel has been on the world. He is the consummate modern-day wielder of power. He completely understands having it, and what to do with it, and how to keep it. He is a source of endless fascination for me. Maybe that's what it takes to write a book about someone."