Myth Makers

Author meets metaphor: Ana Menndez's new novel imagines Che in a torrid love affair

While it's certainly true that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, with Che Guevara that maxim has become downright surreal. Today the revolutionary icon's writings are simultaneously admired by teenage Howard Dean volunteers in Burlington and Taliban leaders in the Afghan countryside; they are parsed for strategies by narco-guerrillas in Colombia as well as counterinsurgency experts at the U.S. Southern Command.

Meanwhile the same Che T-shirt spotted on several masked anarchists cavorting through downtown Miami during November's FTAA protests was also sported by actress Elizabeth Hurley as she club-hopped across London. Hurley, though, chose to accessorize her sartorial ode to class struggle with a $4500 Louis Vuitton handbag. And just to add a further dash of the ridiculous, consider the recent sight of supermodel Gisele Bündchen strutting down the catwalk in a Che bikini, Madonna's Che-inspired CD cover, or Smirnoff vodka's Che ad campaign.

For many local Cuban exiles, however, Guevara's current cultural moment is hardly a laughing matter. To them the very mention of Guevara -- let alone the thought that his visage adorns countless dorm rooms -- is deeply disturbing. The Argentine-born rebel, after all, was Fidel Castro's right-hand man during Cuba's 1959 revolution, personally presiding over several key events that forced so many to flee to South Florida: commanding scores of firing-squad executions of political opponents inside Havana's La Cabaña waterfront fortress; managing the wholesale nationalization of private businesses and homes; hunting down anti-Castro groups in the Escambray mountains; even demanding that the Soviets launch their island-based nukes at Washington, D.C. , during the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Accordingly el exilio had best steel itself. Guevara's public profile is about to rise even higher in 2004. No fewer than four separate major-studio films based on Guevara's life are in the offing. First up is Central Station director Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Guevara's own account of his extended road trip through Latin America, a journey that resulted in his self-transformation from a skirt-chasing, middle-class dilettante intoa devout quoter of Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao (albeit one who still spent a great deal of time hooking up with female comrades). Starring Latin heartthrob Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries was the toast of last month's Sundance Film Festival. Critics are already raving, as is Fidel himself, who dropped in on the picture's co-producer, Robert Redford, during a recent Havana visit to screen the film for Guevara's surviving family members.

Currently in preproduction is Che with Benicio Del Toro portraying the hirsute comandante and the legendary Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) emerging from reclusion to direct. Miami Beach native Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) holds an option to produce a film adaptation of Jon Lee Anderson's definitive biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, while Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci has, according to Variety, declared his own intention to hitch a ride on this bandwagon and produce a Guevara flick.

Guevara's appeal to Latin America's more radical political activists has never been hard to fathom. While older, established left-wing groups were counseling patience and the tortuously slow path of organizing the masses, Guevara offered a brasher program to those coming of age in the Sixties: Pick up a gun and head for the hills. The masses will eventually follow.

Indeed the United States' own budding New Leftists were no less enthralled by the prospect of shortcutting that long slog to utopia. "Perhaps we need an easy diversion from the hard business of cracking America. Now we dig Cuba," mused antiwar leader Todd Gitlin after a 1968 trip to the island. "We preserve our quick optimisms with fantasies of an assault on our barracks, a landing in our yacht, a fight in our mountains."

These days Gitlin, like many other graying members of the Class of '68, may be somewhat abashed about his onetime naivete. But a new generation seems all too ready to embrace Guevara -- or at least his allure.

Which hardly surprises Ana Menéndez, author of In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd and a new Miami Beach resident. Menéndez believes Guevara's admirers aren't flocking to a man so much as a full-fledged myth. "Che embodied the possibilities, all the romantic notions of revolution, the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves -- and not just for Cuba but for everybody," Menéndez explains to Kulchur. "He was charming, an idealist, and he died young. So he's a metaphor. [Jean-Paul] Sartre called him the most complete man in history." She quickly catches herself before falling into the same emotional trap she's detailing: "No one's going to be saved by Che Guevara -- not then or now. But it's a beautiful thing to dream about. "

If this description seems more akin to groupies stalking a rock star than that of a scruffy politico shot down in the Bolivian jungle while trying to foment violent uprisings, it's hardly a coincidence. "This sort of hero worship," Menéndez says, "giving oneself over to an irrational passion -- it's often like the first throes of love."

Cue the release of Menéndez's new novel Loving Che, an attempt to untangle this very phenomenon. Where the short stories in 2001's In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd mined the exile experience to a bittersweet comedic effect, the core of Loving Che is a straight-up romance. A spiritually adrift Miami woman, searching for her mother, stumbles across a cache of diaries chronicling a delirious affair with the storied Guevara, one that blooms and curdles in tandem with the initial promise of the Cuban revolution.

Shouts, gunfire, glass breaking, gushes Menéndez's narrator. Cataclysmic events, whatever their outcome, are as rare and transporting as a great love. Bombings, revolutions, earthquakes, hurricanes -- anyone who has passed through one and lived, if they are honest, will tell you that even in the depths of their fear there was an exhilaration such as had been missing from their lives until then. In those first days of January, the air was clear, the nights were cool. It was like being young and knowing the joy of it as well as if one were old.

Cutting to the bedroom, Menéndez's prose is no less heated, often rising to Harlequin flights. If you've ever wondered what a naked Guevara smelled like while thrashing about on a bare mattress, look no further.

That image, Guevara as a studly Lothario, clearly rankles some. During Menéndez's recent reading from Loving Che at Coral Gables's Books & Books, the predominantly Cuban-exile crowd seemed equally fascinated and unnerved. Yet that reaction feels oddly right.

As Menéndez revealed that the book's Spanish edition would be retitled For the Love of Che, columnist Olga Connor of El Nuevo Herald burst out in mock horror: "That's even worse!" Connor subsequently launched into her own impassioned take on Guevara's legacy, making sure the entire Books & Books audience was properly schooled in his sordid past. But midspeech her tone softened as she recalled attending church in Havana as a young girl. During a prayer, she turned and spied Guevara and his second wife Aleida in a nearby pew. Connor drew up sharply, momentarily at a loss for words. All these years later, she still seemed slightly awed by this childhood memory.

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