The Story of Che Guevara, by Lucía Álvarez de Toledo, Quercus, RRP£20, 464 pages
Is it a requisite for a competent biographer to share his or her subject’s background? Argentine broadcaster and translator Lucía Álvarez de Toledo seems to think so. She has written The Story of Che Guevara to “dispel numerous popular misconceptions” put about by earlier biographers of the physician-turned-revolutionary icon.
“This is an account of Guevara’s life written by a Latin American, a native of Buenos Aires and a woman,” she writes in her introduction, justifying yet another volume dedicated to the hero of the Cuban revolution. Her claim overlooks the fact that other Latin Americans have written about Guevara, too, albeit less sympathetically.
The book, she says, “draws on a background which allows me to see things other biographies have missed or failed to understand”. She grew up a few blocks away from Guevara’s family home (although many years later). She and Guevara “went to the same places ... and knew many of the same people. Perhaps even more crucially, we spoke the same language.”
More contentiously, she claims that being a woman means she feels “no need to compete with Che in the macho stakes or to cut him down to size. Many of the men who have written about him seem compelled to attack him, as if the mere fact that he once existed casts a doubt on their masculinity.” Ouch.
By this point it is clear to the reader that Álvarez de Toledo has a huge axe to grind. Mostly, though she never acknowledges it openly, her salvos are directed at male, non-Argentine authors, including Mexico’s Jorge Castañeda, writer of Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (1997), and American journalist Jon Lee Anderson, author of the mammoth Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997).
The reader might expect an author with such unique credentials to offer a fresh perspective into Guevara’s life. This expectation is not met. The author’s greatest contribution lies in pinning down Ernesto Guevara’s background and social origins – his use of berets, for instance, was a nod to his Basque ancestry. She adds little, however, to the known accounts of how the well-off medic converted to the doctrine of armed struggle that led to his death in 1967.
Her treatment of the most controversial episode in Guevara’s military and political career – his summary execution of hundreds of “counter-revolutionaries” at the infamous Cabaña prison, in 1959 – is cursory and skims over the known facts. She absolves her subject of guilt with a glib observation: “Half the world was descending on Havana and wanted to see him, so where did he find the time to go around cracking skulls?”
Álvarez de Toledo seems aghast at the merchandising of Guevara’s legacy – although, as translator of Alberto Granado’s diary, Travelling with Che Guevara, she, too, has been a party to it. More worryingly for an author so preoccupied with the authenticity of other biographers’ sources, she is unforgivably coy about her own. Her book would have been more valuable had she concentrated on more original research instead of disparaging others.