The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey
Somewhat boring at start, but with inspired description of remnants of Inca empire and its people around the middle of the book.
I found the first half of the book slow and uninteresting, with forced description and boring narration. This all changes somewhere around the middle of the book, once Ernesto and Alberto leave Chile and head through Bolivia towards Peru.
My guess, based on some information in the preface and from the text itself, is that Guevara did not really maintain a daily diary as he traveled. He probably did write some notes here and there, and he used them to assemble this text once he got back home. Traveling through Peruvian Andes and Amazonia made such an impact on him, that it suppressed all that came before it. Perhaps that is why most of the leading chapters seamed so forced…
But once he entered the remnants of the ancient Inca empire, he was struck by the grandeur of the ruins and the plight of the people. The chapters about Cuzco and the surrounding area were wonderfully written (although obviously mostly after the return to Argentina).
Here I’ll quote several fragments in which I think that he managed to capture the essence of the settlement, its history, architecture and people:
The word that most perfectly describes the city of Cuzco is “evocative.” Intangible dust of another era settles on its streets, rising like the disturbed sediment of a muddy lake when you touch its bottom. But there are two or three Cuzcos, or it’s better to say, two or three ways the city can be summoned. When Mama Ocllo dropped her golden wedge into the soil and it sank effortlessly, the first Incas knew this was the place selected by Viracocha to be the permanent home for his chosen ones, who had left behind their nomadic lives to come as conquistadors to their promised land. With nostrils flaring zealously for new horizons, they watched as their formidable empire grew, always looking beyond the feeble barrier of the surrounding mountains. The converted nomads set to expanding Tahuantinsuyo, fortifying as they did so the center of their conquered territory — the navel of the world — Cuzco.
And here grew, as a necessary defense for the empire, the imposing Sacsahuamán, dominating the city from its heights and protecting the palaces and temples from the wrath of the enemies of the empire. The vision of this Cuzco emerges mournfully from the fortress destroyed by the stupidity of illiterate Spanish conquistadors, from the violated ruins of the temples, from the sacked palaces, from the faces of a brutalized race. This is the Cuzco inviting you to become a warrior and to defend, club in hand, the freedom and the life of the Inca.
High above the city another Cuzco can be seen, displacing the destroyed fortress: a Cuzco with colored-tile roofs, its gentle uniformity interrupted by the cuppola of a baroque church; and as the city falls away it shows us only its narrow streets and its native inhabitants dressed in typical costume, all the local colors. This Cuzco invites you to be a hesitant tourist, to pass over things superficially and relax into the beauty beneath a leaden winter sky.
And there is yet another Cuzco, a vibrant city whose monuments bear witness to the formidable courage of the warriors who conquered the region in the name of Spain, the Cuzco to be found in museums and libraries, in the church facades and in the clear, sharp features of the white chiefs who even today feel pride in the conquest. This is the Cuzco asking you to pull on your armor and, mounted on the ample back of a powerful horse, cleave a path through the defenseless flesh of a naked Indian flock whose human wall collapses and disappears beneath the four hooves of the galloping beast.
The description of the town is followed by the description of the town’s cathedral:
Even today, when the bestial rage of the conquering rabble can be seen in each of the acts designed to eternalize the conquest, and the Inca caste has long since vanished as a dominant power, their stone blocks stand enigmatically, impervious to the ravages of time. The white troops sacked the already defeated city, attacking the Inca temples with unbridled fury. They unified their greed for the gold that covered the walls, in perfect representations of Inti the Sun God, with the sadistic pleasure of exchanging the joyful and life-giving symbol of a grieving people for the bereaved idol of a joyful people. The temples to Inti were razed to their foundations or their walls were made to serve the ascent of the churches of the new religion: the cathedral was erected over the remains of a grand palace, and above the walls of the Temple of the Sun rose the Church of Santo Domingo, both lesson and punishment from the proud conqueror. And yet every so often the heart of America, shuddering with indignation, sends a nervous spasm through the gentle back of the Andes, and tumultuous shock waves assault the surface of the land. Three times the cuppola of proud Santo Domingo has collapsed from on high, to the rhythm of broken bones, and its worn walls have opened and fallen too. But the foundations they rest on are unmoved, the great blocks of the Temple of the Sun indifferently exhibit their gray stone; however colossal the disaster befalling its oppressor, not one of its huge rocks shifts from its place.
The cost of restoring the cathedral bell towers, destroyed by the earthquake of 1950, had been met by General Franco’s government, and as a gesture of gratitude the band was ordered to play the Spanish national anthem. As the first chords sounded, the bishop’s red headdress locked itself into position as he moved his arms about like a puppet. “Stop, stop, there’s been a mistake,” he whispered, while the indignant voice of a Spaniard could be heard, “Two years’ work, and they play this!” I couldn’t say whether with good intentions or otherwise, the band had struck up the Spanish Republican anthem.
The cathedral is grounded firmly in the center of the city. Its solidity, typical to its era, makes it look more like a fortress than a church. The glitz of its brilliant interior reflects a glorious past; the giant paintings reposing on the lateral walls do not measure up to riches scattered through the sanctuary but somehow they do not seem out of place, and a St. Christopher emerging from the water seemed, at least to me, a fine piece. The earthquake wreaked havoc there as well: the frames of the paintings are broken and the paintings themselves scratched and creased. The effect created by the golden frames and the golden doors to the side altars all falling off their hinges is very strange, as if they’re revealing the lesions of age. Gold doesn’t have the gentle dignity of silver which becomes more charming as it ages, and so the cathedral seems to be decorated like an old woman with too much makeup. There is real artistry in the choir stalls, made from wood by Indian or mestizo craftsmen. In their carved scenes of the lives of the saints, they have infused the cedar with the spirit of the Catholic Church and the enigmatic soul of the true Andean peoples.
He sees and acknowledges the plight of the Indian population, but he does not romanticize them. He sees in them a race of defeated, conquered people, resolved to living in a horrible state, a vast majority of them ignorant of Spanish, the language in which their country is run, and almost universally illiterate:
The somewhat animal-like concept the indigenous people have of modesty and hygiene means that irrespective of gender or age they do their business by the roadside, the women cleaning themselves with their skirts, the men not bothering at all, and then carry on as before. The underskirts of Indian women who have kids are literally warehouses of excrement, a consequence of the way they wipe the rascals every time one of them passes wind.
The mestizo curator was very knowledgeable, with a breathtaking enthusiasm for the race whose blood flowed in his veins. He spoke to us of the splendid past and the present misery, of the urgent need to educate the Indians, as a first step toward total rehabilitation. He insisted that immediately raising the economic level of Indian families was the only way to mitigate the soporific effects of coca and drink. He talked of fostering a fuller and more exact understanding of the Quechua people so that individuals of that race could look at their past and feel pride, rather than, looking at their present, feel only shame at belonging to the Indian or mestizo class.
No doubt about it, I loved the middle part set in the Peruvian Andes the most, but I felt more engaged with the end chapters then I did with those at the beginning.
The last chapter of the diary “a note in the margin” seemed somehow tacked on to the rest. It was obviously added much later, and there, in a form of a conversation with a real or an imaginary man, Guevara prophesises his later career as a revolutionary.
Overall, it is easy to read, and worth the time if nothing else for it’s middle part about Peru.
Stolen Continents: 500 Years of Conquest and Resistance in the Americas
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