The journalist Herbert L Matthews insisted in 1969 that you could not be objective about Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. Over almost 50 years as President, Fidel's prestige has waxed and waned, currently on a high thanks to simple survival and to younger advocates like Hugo Chávez, while Che, since his murder in 1967, has continued to grow to mythic proportions. Both embody the true revolutionary: Fidel staked out the nationalistic area, deeply involved in the 1960s with Cuban politics and relations with the US and Soviets. Che sought an internationalist role, an Argentine outsider who became Cuban, then Latin American, and failed to export permanent revolution in the Congo and Bolivia.
Simon Reid-Taylor has chosen the Cold War, with the hair-raising Cuban missile crisis of 1962, as a focus for a dual biography of the 12-year relationship between these two complex personalities. To avoid taking sides, he has written an impressive narrative that starts in Mexico in 1956, including the dramatic crossing to Cuba in the Granma, the loss of nearly all aboard and the slow violent revolution emanating from the Sierra Maestra. We follow the two men growing up, in power, in love, travelling, arguing, reading and writing until the impatient Che abandons his government posts, discards his Cuban nationality, and sets off to begin further uprisings.
By writing of this extraordinary bond in such a well-sourced way, exploiting diaries, letters, previous biographies, declassified files and anecdotes, Reid-Henry brings back the danger and intense emotions of that revolutionary period. His omniscient position and colloquial prose suit the action, so that it reads like adventure fiction. I had to pinch myself to remember that this happened. Che and Fidel were not a Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The two men became blood brothers in the sense that guerrilla battles bonded them. Chess-playing Che looked up to the hyper-active Fidel as the New Man with a "razor-sharp" mind, dedicated to attaining a socialist vision in a non-peaceful way. Fidel soon accepted Che as an equal with his honesty, self-sacrifice, hard work and sharper understanding of Marxist-Lenism and Maoism. This mutual admiration illustrated that two heads are better than one.
Reid-Henry does not speculate or blame. For example, the issue of Che's summary justice, having some 600 Batista stooges executed, is hardly broached. We do, though, get a vivid sense of what was at stake in how traitors were dealt with and what loyalty meant. One of the earliest betrayers, a guide, was condemned to death by Fidel, who then walked off, unable to delegate who should execute the man. Che pulled out his pistol and shot him on the spot. Reckless and ruthless, Che took what he had meted out later when he chided his executioner to shoot him in these words: "Calm yourself ... You're only going to kill a man". He despised individuality, while remaining unique.
The inter-dependence of Fidel and Che generated complex debates about revolution in Cuba and how to promote it abroad, with a chilling proviso. When Che went it alone, he failed. He returned to being a foreigner in Bolivia, despite trying to learn Quechua and assuming that he would be perceived as a genuine Latin American by Bolivian peasants and the Bolivian communist party. Without Fidel's passionate patriotism and arch-pragmatism, Che was doomed.
The biographer is too young to have lived through those years, and hindsight cools prejudices about a period where you were either for or against guerrilla revolution. Has history absolved Castro and Guevara? It may have. A closing sentence suggests that the dream of a continent-wide revolution is over. But Chávez's pan-American revolutionary vision suggests otherwise. Certainly, since 1967, Guevara's guerrilla path to power has not lacked countless advocates.
I closed this book aware of their differences. Che was more complex, more daring, trying to accompany his actions with reflections on paper, a poet not a politician, still lugging books in the ravines of Bolivia. Both men, often in military fatigues, harked back to the novice days in the Sierra, but only Che tried to recapture these thrills as a barbudo on the road again. As embodied in this cleverly constructed dual biography, their friendship in revolution emanates an aura of nostalgia, of a golden age.
Jason Wilson is professor emeritus of Latin American literature at UCL