Steven Soderbergh took the first part of his new movie Che to the Havana Film Festival in December. Benicio del Toro's performance has been deemed superb and I'm eager to see it. What I wonder is how the filmmakers could pass over, unmentioned, any account of the controversial period when, shortly after the 1959 revolution, Che Guevara was in charge of La Cabana prison in Havana, supervising detention, summary judgment and execution of political prisoners. I wish, then, I could contrive to see the film, to answer this question, without actually purchasing a ticket.
Che's role at La Cabana shortly after the 1959 revolution touches on one of the stranger moments from my time working at the Paris Review with George Plimpton. Some 15 years ago, from a friend at Grove Press, I got hold of the unpublished translation manuscript of Che's memoir, The Motorcycle Diaries, six months before it was published as a book. The writing was fine, a somewhat conventional but well-observed travel book, with vivid tableaux of people and land and cities in the countries of Latin America where he'd travelled while training as a doctor.
I thought it could work for the magazine as an historical and literary oddity, and one without attendant controversy. The Cold War had ended, and with that the side-conflicts in Latin America had by and large been rolled up. One aspect that made the book particularly interesting was to watch the unfolding of the writer's humanist sensibility, and so far as I could see it was devoid then of sub-Marxist dialectics. That sensibility was well-depicted by Walter Salles in his film adaptation of the book.
I pulled pages from the manuscript, carefully stitched together an excerpt, and called my contact at Grove. There was little advance word on the book, and the Grove people were happy to have the interest, as no one else was bidding for the serial rights. I took the paper-clipped excerpt upstairs to the Boss, flopped down in the chair to the side of his desk, an Eames chair from which he liked to watch his "teams" (the Detroit Lions, the Celtics and others who'd invited him to step on to the field as a participatory journalist), and said I had something strange and good. As I started to tell him about it, his smile faded. I stopped my pitch and said, "Boss, what's the matter?"