I have a memory–a surprisingly distinct one, considering the circumstances–I was about nineteen, a sophomore in college, hanging out at a friend’s house, listening to records and going through his books. He had a large red book, a Che Guevara reader that I recognized not by the name (which I’d never heard pronounced) but rather by the iconic image of the Argentine Marxist revolutionary. Of course, I didn’t know that Che was an Argentine Marxist revolutionary at the time–I just knew the image. “Is this any good?” I asked my friend, thumbing through the thick, stiff volume. “No idea,” he replied. “Who is this guy, anyway?” My friend smiled at me — “You don’t know who Che Guevara is? Neither do I.” This admission speaks volumes to Che’s legacy, a legacy of image over substance, form over idea, iconography over doctrine–a legacy thoroughly and playfully covered in Michael Casey’s intriguing new study, Che’s Afterlife.
Casey’s book begins in the back of a tuk tuk in Bangkok, where the author sees two images juxtaposed: the iconic photograph of Che by Alberto Korda next to a picture of Rambo–the Communist revolutionary and the all-American defender of the capitalist way of life. In Che’s Afterlife, Casey follows this strange juxtaposition across the globe, from the moment Korda captures the image while on assignment recording Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s 1960 trip to Cuba, to the image’s rallying explosion across the Western world, to its modern implications in Chavez’s Venezuela and its infamy among Cuban Republicans in Miami. The global ride is packed with fascinating historical characters, artists, and writers, but at its heart is the central paradox of how a Communist firebrand became a capitalist brand. “It’s impossible to overlook the irony,” Casey writes, “the commoditization of an anticapitalist rebel who opposed all that his hyper-commercialized image now represents.”
Che’s Afterlife is not so much another Che Guevara biography as it is an exploration of the power of imagery and media in a global world. Casey works from sources like Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag, along with contemporary political and economic analysts to explore how and why the “the Korda image remains a powerful indicator of rebellion and resistance.” I saw myself in the book time and again, not in any of the political ideologies, but rather as one of the many “young Americans [who] know [Che] only as a T-shirt logo.” Casey’s study is well-researched, well-written, and lots of fun, a book more at home under the cultural studies rubric than biography or history. Recommended.
Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image by Michael Casey is available April 7th, 2009 from Vintage.