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Killing Che

Robert Downes - June 21st, 2007
Walk into any tourist t-shirt shop on the planet and you’re likely to find the brooding image of Che Guevera in his star-topped black beret, ready to enlist the wanna-be revolutionaries of the world into what is now little more than a fashion statement.
But in his day, Che Guevera was a young man who shook the world as one of a handful of guerillas who waged a successful revolution in Cuba with Fidel Castro. He was a 34-year-old idealist who dreamed of exporting the same revolutionary tactics to South America when he was gunned down by the Bolivian army working with the Central Intelligence Agency in 1967.
But who was Che? The fun-loving young doctor of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” or the communist icon who talked a good game of freedom, but was just as willing to crush Cuba’s free press after the revolution?
Author Chuck Pfarrer offers some answers in his first novel, “Killing Che,” which is based on the revolutionary’s own field diaries. That, and Pfarrer’s own background as a former Navy SEAL, which provides some behind-the-scenes insight into how the CIA’s covert campaign against Che may have gone down.

Pfarrer deserves kudos for offering a nuanced, even-handed view of Che that is sympathetic to his dream of freeing Bolivia from its brutal government and corporate overseers. In the hands of a lesser writer, Che Guevera could have been written up as a sort of Snidely Whiplash character. And, considering that Pfarrer’s last book was “Warrior Soul,” about his time in the Navy SEALs, some readers might fear that he would approach the subject of Third World revolution with a dash of patriotic jingoism.
So it’s refreshing to find that Pfarrer, a resident of the Torch Lake/Bellaire area, has written a thriller that respects both Che Guevera as well as his CIA adversaries, crafting darkly detailed personalities that make us care about his characters and their fate. His characters have personal problems to deal with -- along with their skewed ideas of saving the world -- and are painted with shades of moral ambivalence.
Pfarrer’s main character is Paul Hoyle, a CIA “contractor” who’s been drummed out of the agency for some iffy behavior in Laos, relating to the war in Vietnam.
As a pariah in the U.S. intelligence community, Hoyle is reduced to becoming a mercenary and dirty tricks operator in the service of a mysterious Mr. Smith. An officer with the CIA, Smith has been sent to Bolivia to track down reports of a communist guerilla group.
It isn’t long before Hoyle and Smith discover that the guerillas are led by Che Guevera. This comes as a shock to the CIA, which is under the impression that Che was killed trying to launch a revolution in the Congo. A decision is made to mount a covert operation against the guerillas, with U.S. Army Rangers assisting Bolivian troops.

Meanwhile, Che is in the jungle, leading a mixed bag of hardened Cuban revolutionaries and so-so Bolivian join-ups. Che is a revolutionary in more than one sense of the word in that he’s literally walking in circles -- first on a forced three-week march through the terrain of a green hell to toughen his troops, and then in an attempt to dodge Bolivia’s military and their eyes in the CIA.
Che is a man who is frequently at death’s door with a severe case of asthma. He eats little, cusses a great deal, possesses a deep intelligence, and rebukes his men for the slightest transgressions with the fury of a tyrant. One can only wonder at his skill as a tactician, since he drives his men to needless exhaustion; in the end, they’re reduced to eating their mules and wildlife to avoid starvation.
Fierce as a hawk, Che gives up everything -- home, family, lovers, a career in Cuba -- to follow his dream of igniting a revolution of 300 million South Americans. Yet, as Pfarrer points out, Che’s narcissism blinds him, leading to a fatal destiny. “Though he was unfailingly wary of self-centeredness when it existed in others, he did not see it in himself,” Pfarrer writes. “He was proud, he knew, but did not comprehend that his pride was of the most dangerous sort, the sin by which the angels fell. It never once occurred to him to ask if his dreams were too grand to be made real.”

As a writer with several screenplays to his credit (“The Jackal,” “Darkman,” “Red Planet” and “Virus”), Pfarrer has two great talents.
His first is characterization. Both Che and Paul Hoyle come off as flesh-and-blood characters who routinely suffer depressing setbacks and yet always scrape themselves up from a pool of blood and keep going.
There’s a passing likeness in Hoyle to Ian Fleming’s Jame’s Bond, meaning the literary character (not the absurd film creation) a tough guy who faced his adversaries with a blend of ugly experience and steel in his soul. Hoyle is a fatalist who doesn’t have much hope for his chances in life, other than to collect his stipend and move on to the next sordid job.
And yet, Hoyle finds himself over his head in love with a Cuban beauty, Maria, who has been forced by circumstances to become the mistress of a Bolivian intelligence officer. In the tradition of the great spy novels by Graham Green and John Le Carre, Hoyle compromises his love and risks all to obtain the key to tracking down Guevera.
The theme of betrayal also enshrouds Guevera’s pathetic lover, Tania, a Soviet agent who is asked to rat him out when her bosses in Moscow decide that Third World revolutions are past their prime. The stories of Maria and Tania soften what would otherwise be a relentless “men’s” novel.
Then there are double-crossing Soviets and corrupt Bolivian officials (are there any other kind?), wily peasants and a sardonic chauffeur... overall, Pfarrer has assembled a great cast of characters that keep his book percolating. Plus, he has a painter’s eye for Bolivia’s scenery, bringing scenes of peasant squalor and jungle shootouts to life.

Pfarrer’s other great strength is his insider’s knowledge of the world of special operations. He tells how the CIA deployed both public and covert Ranger teams to Bolivia, and details some of the minutiae of jungle warfare. The Rangers of the “Famous Lawyer” team arrive in a nondescript plane with fake numbers at a jungle landing strip and begin combing the jungle for Guevera. The reader learns the techniques of a good ambush, nighttime surveillance and other goodies, in addition to Guevera’s views on launching a revolution from a jungle redoubt.
Speaking of which, the book points out that Bolivia provided thin soil for a revolution to take root, despite the fact that it was one of the most brutal, repressive governments in the Americas. Unfortunately for him, Che picked a remote jungle area where possible supporters among peasants were few and far between -- they considered themselves more as pioneers than an oppressed people. Without a supportive peasant base, no guerilla movement -- be it Cubans, the Viet Cong, or Iraqi insurgents -- can survive.
“Sickness, betrayal, and the apathy of the peasants had eroded his force,” Pfarrer writes. “The guerrillas had moved through the countryside, holding out truth and justice, moving, always moving, and the peasants had ignored them. Few had cooperated, and not a single person had come forward to join the vanguard. Nothing had been more fatal to him than the barren climate of their minds.”
Inevitably, the book leads us to the fatal shootout on Oct. 9, 1967 in the box canyon of Bolivia’s Yuro Ravine. Pfarrer gives us the official version of the events and how the ambush went down. But more tantalizing is the alternative history of Che’s death that has been speculated on for the past 40 years. Che’s last defiant words and echoes of “Cassablanca” provide a bittersweet ending.
“Killing Che” is an intelligent thriller that will have you staying up late nights, turning the pages in wide-eyed anticipation. As pawns in a global war between the forces of communism and capitalism, Che Guevera and his adversary Paul Hoyle bleed on the pages, bringing jungle warfare, revolution and alternative visions of freedom to life. Highly recommended.
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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