Portrait of the martyr as a young man

Ian Thomson charts Che's progress from playboy to executioner; Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson, Bantam Press, pounds 25

In the 1960s Che Guevara's bearded face appeared on more student bedsit walls than damp stains or Jimi Hendrix. The famous photograph of saintly eyes and straggly black hair was taken in Havana 14 months after the Revolution. It was March 1960. Che had been standing on a balcony, half obscured by Castro's bulk, when he moved into a journalist's lens. An Argentine of Spanish ancestry, Che became an icon in the West like Warhol's Monroe. Cubans nicknamed him Che - "mate" - after his comradely leadership.

Ernesto Guevara (de la Serna) devoted 11 years of his brief life to Fidel's Revolution. Even in death there was a sainted air to his appearance. After he was executed by the military in a remote Bolivian schoolroom on 9 October 1967, the nurse who washed Che's corpse and the nuns at the hospital where his body was displayed kept locks of his hair. They said he resembled Jesus Christ. The Bolivian High Command wanted to obliterate every trace of the freedom fighter: before two days were out, all that remained to be seen of him were his severed hands, stoppered in formaldehyde for fingerprint identification.

The location of Che's grave in Bolivia was revealed by Jon Lee Anderson in 1995 during his research for this diligent biography. Anderson is a Time magazine journalist and his determination to interview all who knew Che is admirable. He spoke to Che's widow, Aleida March; to the rebel's final interrogator, the CIA stooge Felix Rodrguez (who embraced Che after communicating his death sentence), and to the Bolivian army sergeant who volunteered to execute him. Disguising his identity from Fidel's assassins with a variety of wigs, Mario Tern repeats Che's last words: "I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man."

Thirty years after his death, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life gives an admirably balanced account of the Argentine adventurer, his real achievements and glamorous Robin Hood appeal.

Obsessed with finding a cure for his chronic asthma, Guevara took a medical degree at Buenos Aires in 1953. He wanted to remedy the social injustice of South America - at first with preventative medicine, later through armed insurrection.

Che could be ruthless. During the long guerilla war in Cuba, he personally killed the first traitor of the revolution. "I ended the problem by giving him a shot with a .32 pistol in the right side of his brain ..." Still unpublished, Che's private diary reveals a chilling detachment from violence. In 1959, after Fidel's victory, Guevara oversaw an estimated 550 executions in Havana. Che's father, an Argentine tea planter, remarked that "Ernesto had brutalised his own sensitivities".

It was not always so. In 1952 Guevara had travelled round South America on a motorbike, gallivanting like a beatnik down Peru's desert Pacific coast and up to the ruins of Macchu Picchu and staying as a guest of the President of Ecuador. A middle-class Argentine with little interest in politics, then he preferred to sleep with the family maids.

As a doctor in the backwoods of Guatemala three years later, Guevara was introduced to leftists opposed to the regime funded by United Fruit - the company which had made of neighbouring Honduras the original "banana republic". This was a crucial encounter, encouraging Guevara's loathing for Uncle Sam and his eventual conversion to Marxism.

Guevara was the only non-Cuban aboard the Granma, the cabin cruiser that ferried 82 revolutionary patriots, led by Fidel, from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. The Cuban revolution was not communist but nationalist in inspiration. After Batista's thuggish regime had been overthrown and Che made director of the Cuban national bank, he retained his combat fatigues and black beret, mindful of his proletarian image. He was a very different revolutionary to the Fidelistas. While Castro was the paunchy epicure with a relish for pasta con vongole, in later years Che didn't dance or drink.

His passion was for chess and mathematics. A literate man, he had an acidic sense of humour and the adventurer's contempt for bureaucracy. Unhappy with the course of Fidel's reforms - too much paperwork - Che left Cuba in 1965 to champion other revolutionary causes in Zaire and Bolivia.

Anderson proves conclusively that Fidel sent Che Guevara (already the father of five children) to Bolivia in the spring of 1966. The decision eventually led to Che's death at the age of 39 during a half-baked guerilla insurrection.

Tied up like an animal in the Bolivian schoolroom, Che was didactic to the end. Motioning to a grammatical error on the blackboard, he told a frightened teacher that her school was a disgrace. If the rest of Che's life was a glamorous failure, he had at least helped to eradicate Cuba's illiteracy.

Occasionally Anderson's prose is clumsy ("Buenos Aires now had a melting pot's combustive, passionate quality") and he quotes too liberally from Che's own guerilla manuals, which are not scintillating. But Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life is an excellent guide to the myth behind the martyr.

Were he alive today, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna would be approaching 70. He died with his boots on, caught in full stride as he would have wanted.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson is published by Bantam Press at pounds 25.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice
music

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004
music

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

News
i100
Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album