A Diary of Che Guevara Touches Hearts in Italy

Soon out in English, the memoirs of Latin American rebel draw fans

'IT'S like James Dean in the United States,'' says Elisabetta Castellani, struggling to explain the cult-star status of the late Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara in Italy. ''He's a rebel.''

This Argentine rebel had a cause, a big one. The leftist radical spawned Marxist revolutions throughout Latin America and became a leading force in Fidel Castro Ruz's Cuba. And Ms. Castellani has reason to be sympathetic: She is a journalist for the Rome-based Il Manifesto newspaper, which still describes itself as a communist daily despite the demise of the party's power throughout most of the world.

Che, as he is widely known, has been a legendary figure among Italy's hard left for years. Part of his revival here is the publication two years ago of his diaries, which recount his exploits on a motorcycle as he cruised through Latin America in 1952. The diaries will be published in English for the first time next month.

His troubled brown eyes and shocks of dark hair have stayed with admirers long after his death in 1967. ''He was really good-looking,'' Castellani confesses.

In a moment when an entire class of politicians has been discredited in sweeping anticorruption probes, when the business world seems little more than dog-eat-dog competition, and high unemployment leaves young people little hope for the future, Che is seen as a moral individual living outside society's rules, a clean hero struggling against injustice, she adds.

Il Manifesto issued a series of four booklets last year, highlighting Che's political and economic views, but most of all focusing on his personality.

Che indeed emerges as a free spirit from the diary of his 1952 motorcycle tour published by Feltrinelli, a leading publishing company and book-store chain founded by an Italian revolutionary who blew himself up in the early 1970s while attempting to activate a bomb. The book has sold 120,000 copies total -- both alone and in tandem with the diary of Che's traveling companion, Alberto Granado Jimenez.

Che's developing political views emerge from the books. Alberto relates that in Miramar, Argentina, Che met some locals and went on for almost an hour in a passionate defense of socialized medicine in Britain. Alberto, who was six years Che's senior, found himself admiring his friend's eloquence and thoughtfulness.

''It's like I always say,'' he writes. ''You hate Ernesto or you admire him, but it's impossible to ignore him.''

In the two books, Che concentrates more on the cultural facets of the journey, Alberto more on the day-to-day.

The young men have plenty of adventures: A house practically burned down when they were supposed to be helping the town's volunteer firefighters but were sleeping; they once traveled as stowaways before turning themselves in to the ship's captain, who made Alberto peel potatoes and Che clean the latrines (''there's no justice,'' the latter writes); and Alberto was bitten by a piranha and later ate a monkey in Peru.

Alberto's motorcycle gave out before the money did, however -- only two months after leaving home. The bike's brakes failed on the road from Lautaro to Los ngeles, Chile, as the two were hurtling down a hill toward a clump of trees.

Che downshifted to third, to second, and then with an effort to first. The two men managed to leap off without hurting themselves, but the motorcycle was done in.

The blunt side of Che's character emerges at the end of their trip, when Che and Alberto met Hugo Pesce, a noted Marxist physician in Lima, Peru, who invited them to dinner at his home each night of their two-and-a-half week stay. On the last night, Dr. Pesce asked their opinion of his book about life in the Latin American plateaus. He especially wanted the views of Che, whose insight he appreciated.

Che, who had a decidedly unflattering opinion of the work, dodged the question all evening.

But when it came time to leave, Pesce said he would not allow Che to go until he expressed his views.

''It's a horrible book, that doesn't seem to have been written either by a man of science or by a communist,'' Che said, launching into a ferocious and exhaustive critique. The poor doctor could only murmur, ''It's true, it's true.''

When Alberto brought Che up short later, Che responded, ''But excuse me, didn't you see I did everything possible to avoid talking about it?''

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