Sometime back, I came across this book, ‘Brief Encounters With Che Guevara’ by Ben Fountain, in my favorite bookshop i.e Midland Bookshop (Shop No-20, Aurbindo Place Market, Hauz Khas, Near Green Park Church, Delhi). Years and years of buying books from him has made the owner a friend of mine too. In fact, a month back or so, he gifted me with “The Search Warrant’ by Patrick Modianao ( who I hadn’t read till this book) stating with a smile that ‘Aap junooni ho” .( Translation: You have a madness for books & reading).
Well, I hadn’t really heard of Ben Fountain. Its the book’s title which caught my attention. Anything about Che Guevara, who is a hero of mine, naturally grabs my interest. I shall give you a peep into my world of Che, but before that let me tell you about this truly brilliant book and exceptional writer of its short stories. I have a great respect for short stories’ writers possibly because I guess its a gift to be able construct a setting, character, plot with such few words! A childhood literary diet rich with Hemingway, O.Henry, Katherine Mansfield,Oscar Wilde etc reinforces this respect.When Alice Munro won the Nobel Lit in 2013 for her contribution to short-story telling, I whooped, danced around and kissed my copy of her magnificent ”Runaway” in tribute and celebration 🙂
Back to the current book.’The Guardian’ marvelously states the “use foreign settings as more than just fragrant backgrounds””,by Ben Fountain, reminiscent of ” Graham Greene, whose “quiet American”, Alden Pyle, stalks these pages in various guises”. We are taken by the author several times to Haiti,to Myanmmar, to Sierra Leone, to Colombia. To states which have been witness to social and political upheaval. To societies which grapple with transformation and change. To the people who walk in these states and societies similarly as they walk down the alleys of their human souls. The stories are told from what many call an ‘American’ perspective.But I disagree.They have been told from a very human perspective.
There are eight short stories, out of which three really hit me in the guts. The first, ” Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera”, an ornithologist , John Blair, is held hostage in the Colombian rain forest by rebels.His interaction with them reveals that his captors’ commitment to the cause is eclipsed voluntarily by their contrary nearness and bargains with the ‘capitalistic’ big business! The rebels strike a deal for the lumbering rights to the mountain.The logging would mean the extinction of several species that Blair has discovered while in captivity. When he protests, Commandante Alberto, the rebel leader, forces Blair to return home with the visiting American delegation. Blair refuses to leave but the leader insists, saying otherwise Blair would be shot. On the way out of the jungle, the businessmen ask how it feels to finally be going home?
“They were rising, rising, they might never stop – Blair closed his eyes and let his head roll back, surrendering to the awful weightlessness. Like dying, he wanted to tell them, like death, and how grieved and utterly lost you’d feel as everything precious faded out“. I couldn’t help but liken it to the dying and the end of idealism. Fountain writes “thirty years of low-intensity warfare had given the rebels a heightened sense of the absurd”. I guess that’s what ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ are thought of as today.Absurd!
The second story is “The Lion’s Mouth,” in which a disillusioned aid worker, Jill, makes a Faustian bargain to become a blood diamond smuggler for the ‘greater good’. Set in Sierra Leone, the story delves into the complexities of aid in damaged societies.The moral ambiguity ,told relentlessly and un-flinchingly, troubled me a lot. I questioned myself about the way I would have behaved in such a situation.I confess to being surprised with the answers.Maybe, you would be too ?
The third story ” Brief Encounters With Che Guevara” has five sub-stories.All of them talk about a writer’s interactions with people who were in some way connected with Che ( a reference point/touchstone). My favorites from these five are ( a) ” Death In Bolivia’, (b) ‘Comrades-In Arms’ and (c) ‘The Consoling Voice’.
I would highly recommend this book. It has a lot of dark humor and a very grandiose, baroque sort of flamboyance in its detailing.The author laments the hypocrisy, questions the choices to resignedly accept the powerlessness to set things right. An idealist, most certainly Ben Fountain is.But doesn’t look at the world around him through rose-tinted glasses.Which is brave.Very, very brave.
Well, okay, guys, do read the novel, if you are so inclined 🙂 And, yeah, some pics to show my Che-ness 🙂
( Books and spiral bound articles/newspaper clippings etc about Che. One of the spiral bound books is ‘The Motorcycle Diaries”, photocopy of my original copy. I gave my copy to my guy some years back to introduce him to Che. I never part with my books.So he understood the significance. Of Che & my gifting it to him 🙂
I was once stopped by security at the New Delhi domestic aiport. I was dressed in my Che T- shirt and torn jeans with an embroidered patch that said ‘Vive La Revolution”.I was also carrying my Che laptop bag very proudly, having just bought it then. The young security officer couldn’t really answer my polite question as to why he had singled me out for a random security check. Instead, he looked very warily at all my Che gear. At the iconic image of Che immortalized by Alberto Korda 🙂 I thought I should tell him about Che and what he stands for, what he fought for.But I didn’t.
To me , Che Guevara represents three things which I value. Freedom, courage and the absolute inability to put up with any kind of injustice. When I fight for children or old aged people or animals or anyone that is defenseless, I am following Che’s ideals.
Time to call it a day, guys!