We were a moody, disconsolate bunch as we sat around the campfire. An outsider might have thought that we were weighed down by the revolution’s lack of military success, or by the paucity of new recruits, or even by the fact that the last shipment of supplies from our Bolivian communist allies consisted of a fruit crate filled, not with ammunition or medicines or even fruit, but with yellowed old paperback copies of Das Kapital (Thanks, comrades! Just what the world’s preeminent – and starving – Marxist revolutionary needed).
But the proximate cause of our unhappiness was lunch. Each of us held a tin mess plate in his lap, staring with something very like despair at the cloudy, viscous stew that had been deposited therein. Protruding from the glop, like prehistoric mammals mired in a tar pit, were various lumps of extremely unappetizing organic matter. Pepe, who had assumed KP duties this week, stood by smiling with idiotic pride, an old rice bag tucked into his dungarees like an apron.
“What is this stuff?” I asked skeptically.
“Ah, Jefe, that is an old family recipe for arroz con pollo.”
I gingerly plucked something from my plate that bore a remote resemblance to an animal’s limb. “Very interesting, Pepe. I note, for example, that this chicken had webbed feet.”
Pepe ran a nervous finger around the inside of his grimy collar. “Well, Jefe, I didn’t actually have any…you know…chicken, so I substituted a frog.”
A dozen spoons abruptly halted half-way between plate and mouth, as if we’d been a precision eating team responding to the order to present arms.
“And instead of rice, you used…?”
“Oh, a handful or two of parched corn.”
Julio – one of our more reckless trenchermen – shoveled a spoonful of the foul entré into his mouth and bit down on something hard.
“Mierda!” He fished the mysterious object from his gob. “And just what is this supposed to be?”
Pepe took the item into his hand, rubbed it on his apron, and studied it. “Sorry, compadre. That’s a button off my shirt.”
“Well,” Augusto volunteered charitably, “it’s not as bad as those chinchilla turds he fed us yesterday.”
“Look,” Pepe said, “I already apologized for that. I thought they were berries.”
“Enough!” I shouted. I glared at my revolting meal. “More than enough. We can’t continue subsisting on frogs and parched corn and” – I shot a stinging glance at Pepe – “chinchilla turds. Now listen. I know we’re running low on ammunition, but I’m going to send someone into the woods to try to shoot a wild pig or a tapir or anything with meat on it. Who’s our best marksman?”
Pepe piped up. “Hector, without a doubt.”
“Fine. Tell Hector to get his rifle and…”
“No good, “ Julio shook his head sadly.
“Don’t you remember? He accidentally shot his trigger finger off last week cleaning his pistol.”
I sighed a bitter sigh, wondering if Trotsky had had days like this (and concluding, with a keen sense of the unfairness of it all, that even in the darkest days of the Russian revolution Trotsky had never fed on chinchilla droppings). “Ok, who’s our second best marksman?”
Pepe was quick to nominate Felipe, on the strength of the latter having shot Pepe’s hat off of his head at a distance of five feet – also as a result of carelessness in weapon-cleaning. I directed Pepe to tell Felipe to take his rifle and two rounds of ammo and go see what he could find in the way of meat.
Suddenly, there was a good deal of commotion in camp with the arrival of two people driving up in an antique Ford automobile.
One was Tania, my revolutionary better half, a voluptuous communist activist who I had originally met in East Germany and who had followed me to Bolivia in order to share my struggle (and my cot). She had been in Argentina to meet with some of our contacts in Buenos Aires, and had stopped off in Camiri to see our (useless) Bolivian operatives. I was flabbergasted to see her dragging a man along with her.
In his safari shirt and vest, with khaki pants tucked into paratrooper boots, the whole ensemble capped with a solar topee, he looked like a big game hunter who had been grossly misinformed about the presence of elephants in Bolivia. He walked by Tania’s side – a little too closely, in my opinion –and a toothy smile lit up his undeniably handsome face.
Tania spoke first, trotting up to me and throwing her arms around my neck.
“Please, querida”, I said. “Not in front of the men. You are undermining revolutionary discipline.”
She laughed and playfully scolded me. “Ah, Che! Don’t be such a bourgeois moralist. I’ve got a surprise for you! Look who I’ve brought with me; Regis Debray, the famous French leftist writer!”
I was stunned. Tania knew that we were low on everything and that we were constantly on the run. And here she comes, bringing along another mouth to feed, a mere non-combatant who would be nothing but a millstone around our necks.
“Tania, what on earth possessed you to drag this…this pen-pusher out here?”
“But Che, Reej can be a big help to us.”
Reej? I confess that I felt the slightest twinge of jealousy. At this precise moment, our guest, who had been standing by, practically wiggling with excitement, stepped forward and wrung my hand. “Ah, this is the great honneur, monsieur le Comandant! To meet you at last – You, who are putting into the practice what I have been writing about for years! One would think that you had been reading my books and articles, yes?”
Debray gave me an intensely inquisitive stare, as if expecting me to tell him that his ivory-tower drivel had, indeed, served as my revolutionary roadmap.
“Señor Debray, could you excuse us for just a moment?” He gave a baroque flourish with his hand, as I took Tania by the arm and led her out of earshot.
“Tania!” I fumed. “We need ammo, food and medicines; we don’t need a court jester!”
“Che, you’re just being pig-headed. Reej” – I gave her an angry look – “Regis, can tell the story of the Bolivian revolution to the outside world. And that is largely your story, darling. He can play Boswell to your Johnson.”
Exasperating as she could be, I couldn’t help thinking, as I gazed upon her peerless dark eyes and full, sensuous lips, that I had plans for my “Johnson” that had nothing to do with anybody named Boswell. Also, I wasn’t about to find myself ejected from my own tent again as a result of one of her temper tantrums.
“All right. He can stay for awhile. But the very minute he gets in the way, out he goes.”
I walked back over to Debray, who stood beaming at his surroundings. “This is really the life, is it not monsieur le Comandant? Fighting to help the trodden-down arise and take charge of their own destiny!”
I was about to mention that, so far, the “trodden-down” gave no evidence whatsoever of wanting to “arise”, at least for anything more important than tending their crops and their scrawny chickens. But I was finding that it was hard to get a word in edgewise with this loquacious fellow. He was sniffing the air censoriously, his big French nose apparently encountering something unpleasant. “Ah, monsieur le Comandant, forgive me for venturing my inexpert opinion, but should not the latrine have been dug farther away from camp?”
“That’s not the latrine. It’s lunch.”
He blanched, but quickly recovered as an idea occurred to him. “Ohn honh! Then I see how I may make myself useful immediately! My uncle was a great chef in France, and he taught me everything he knew. I always carry with me to these remote locations a valise with certain cooking necessities, and it would give me tremendous pleasure to prepare something for you and your men, yes?”
“If you can prepare something that tastes less revolting on the way down that it does on the way back up, it would give us tremendous pleasure, also.” This was actually a very appealing idea. It would keep Debray out of the way, and remove the opportunities Pepe had for poisoning my entire command. Yes, not a bad idea at all. Or so it seemed at the time.
* * * *
Felipe amazed us all when he returned in the late afternoon, a small wild pig thrown over his shoulder. I was rather miffed that he waited for me to conclude my congratulatory remarks on his marksmanship before confessing that he had, in fact, come across the pig while it was sleeping under a bush and had brained it with a rock; however, I was so glad that the menu for that night would be mercifully free of undercooked amphibians that I did not bother to retract my comments. Debray walked up to the men, amiably shunting them aside. “Ah, my fine revolutionary gallants, step aside and permit me to do the honneurs this evening! If you, comrade, will be so kind as to lend me your bayonet, I will have this pig skinned and dressed in the nothings flat!”
A few hours later, the men had gathered around the cook-fire, entranced by the delicious aroma of the smoking pork. Debray – apparently something of a naturalist, as well as a cook and writer – had found some wild herbs and spices which, with the addition of the condiments and sauces from his traveling pantry, had been combined to prepare what was indisputably the finest meal that had ever come our way in the Bolivian wilderness. Tania sidled up to me, and squeezed my arm
“Isn’t he wonderful?” she said. “Not just a writer, but a first-rate chef.”
“I have to admit, my little red torte, that he knows his onions when it comes to whipping up a feed.”
And it was a feast to remember. The conversation, jokes and arguments that typically characterized our meals had been replaced by an almost reverent silence as we tucked into our food, savoring every bite. I was almost beginning to be glad that Debray had shown up.
That is, until later that night, when I finally had Tania alone. We had stepped into our tent, and after that excellent meal, I was looking on her as the dessert course. I took her in my arms, kissed her passionately, and then started to softly croon the “Song of the Volga Boatmen”, knowing that her favorite sexual fantasy was to pretend to be a German countess being ravished by a Red Army private. She melted in my arms, and began nibbling at my ear. A propitious moment, she obviously thought, to lower the boom.
“Che”, she said. “I forgot to mention it earlier, but we had a little trouble in Camiri.”
“What kind of trouble? Yo–oh-Ho-oh…”
“Well…Che…baby…the reason I didn’t radio you beforehand that I was bringing Regis with me is because the police found the jeep that our contacts had made available to me parked on a side street, and they seized it. The radio code book was in it.”
“Yo-oh-Ho…Oh oh! The radio code book? You left it in the jeep?”
“Yes. It was right next to…uh…the map showing the way to our encampment.”
I held her at arms length, and I’m not entirely certain that my beret didn’t shoot off my head and flip over in the air like a pancake. Tania began babbling an explanation.
“You see, I had only expected to be in Camiri for a half a day, but I wound up having to wait there for three days because Reej” – I shook her violently – “Regis! Regis, wanted to take some photographs for the book he’s planning on writing about you, and he’s a bit of a perfectionist, and he wanted to get the pictures just right, and I guess the longer the jeep sat there the more suspicious the cops got and so they finally confiscated it, so we stole a car and – you’re hurting my arms!”
I released her and stared into the middle distance, my mind reeling. It wouldn’t take even the stupid local police very long to figure out that there was something amiss going on out here in the hinterlands, and to report it to the army. I turned on Tania in fury, haranguing her on the slackness of her revolutionary vigilance, her irresponsibility, her addle-pated carelessness, working myself up into an even greater lather than usual because this is not at all the kind of “dressing down” I had in mind.
To her credit, she hung her head submissively, crying softly. After I had expended my wrath, she looked up at me with glistening doe-like eyes and said, “I’m so sorry, Che. I guess you wouldn’t be interested in seeing the surprise I have for you.”
“Tania, I think I’ve had all the surprises I can stand for one day.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Oh, all right. What is your surprise?”
She smiled slyly and stood with her back to me. She languorously removed her olive-drab tank-top, then unfastened her belt buckle. Her arms worked like two slow, sinuous pistons to lower, with some considerable effort, her hip-hugging slacks down over the exquisite convexity of her firm little rump, her buttocks finally popping out like two sweet rolls from a toaster. With an index finger, she directed my gaze – as if direction were needed! – to a tattoo on her right cheek. The tattoo was a likeness of yours truly, based on the famous Korda photograph (the one that, in a previous flight of silly feminine fancy, she had suggested using to market t-shirts in order to fund the revolution).
At that moment, I didn’t care if the whole Bolivian army was breathing down our necks. I fairly burst into song.
* * * *
The next morning – rather late, I’m embarrassed to say – I assembled the men and gave them the news.
“I regret to say that, er, I have received an intelligence report indicating that our current position has been compromised. We will have to strike camp and move immediately.”
To my astonishment, the men put their hands in their pockets, shuffled their feet, and looked furtively at each other.
“So, what’s the problem?” I asked.
Felipe spoke up. “I can see the need to move on, Jefe, but, the thing is…well, Señor Debray was planning on making Pork Normandy tonight. He says it’s his specialty.”
“What?!? Look, Bolivian troops could show up here any day, now, and we need time to find a new location.”
“Yes, Che, but we caught a couple of rabbits, too, and Señor Debray promised to teach Pepe how to make lapin à la moutarde. He says…how did he put it, Pepe?... ‘it is to die for.’”
I gnashed my teeth and all but threw my beret on the ground in disgust. I was about to threaten them with a field court martial when Tania went sashaying by with a pail in her hand, to draw some water from the stream. She winked and threw her right hip out as she passed, secretly reminding me of her “surprise.” If we had to undergo a forced march, it might be days before Tania and I had another opportunity to…
“Very well, men” I said, attempting to appear as if I had been moved by the reasonableness of their argument. “We’ll delay one more day; but tomorrow morning, we strike camp and move out on the double.”
* * * *
The pork Normandy and the lapin à la moutarde that we had dined on the night before had almost literally been “to die for”, because the following morning shots began ringing out from the distant trees, smacking into the ground as we were tearing down our camp. I ordered Julio to take a few men and reconnoiter. He reported back that it appeared to be a small Bolivian patrol, but undoubtedly it would be followed up by reinforced infantry units. I told him to take our entire force and chase off the patrol, so that we would have time to escape from the main force. As they moved out, I was greatly vexed by Debray, who had duck-walked his way across the field of fire over to where I had taken cover behind a boulder. He was holding a great pot over his head by way of helmet.
“Monsieur le Comandant!” he shouted in excitement, his voice echoing inside the pot like that of a sewer worker yelling to his comrades at the top of a manhole. “This is precisely what I came to experience! I ask leave of you to accompany your brave men to the scene of the action.” I was too busy to argue, so I sent him on his way, with Julio as an escort.
A quarter hour later, the firing ceased, and my men came stumbling back into camp – carrying Debray in a make-shift stretcher.
“Coño!” I shouted. “The Bolivian patrol picked off one man, and it had to be Debray? Is he dead?”
The men lowered their burden, and Tania came running over; stooping down, she cradled him in her arms.
Pepe shook his head. “No, Jefe, he isn’t dead. But a bullet ricocheted off that big pot he had on his head and he fainted.”
Tania gently splashed some water on Debray’s face, and our Gallic hero returned to life.
“Unhhh…Where am I? Sacrebleu! My head, she is ring-ging so!”
I kneeled down beside him.
“Don’t worry, Debray. It was nothing. You’ll be fine. But we have to get out of here and make a long march over the mountains. We can carry you in the stretcher for awhile, but…”
His eyes opened wide in horror. “No, no! I wouldn’t dream of slowing you down, monsieur le Comandant! It has suddenly occurred to me that I will be of far greater use to your cause by writing about it back in France. Yes! That would be better all around, I think. So, if you will just help me to my feet, I will be on my way. My car is undamaged, yes?”
Tania was shocked. “But, Reej! You were going to provide the world with first-hand coverage of the Bolivian revolution!” The men were unhappy, too. “And you were going to teach me how to make oxtail soup!” Pepe wailed, in a reproachful voice.
Debray fumbled in his valise and threw his recipe book to Pepe. “There you go! I make you the present of it! And, my dear Tania, the difference between a first-hand report and a second-hand report is not so very large; it is nothing that cannot be disguised with a little of the poetic license, no? Now, I really must go. Au revoir, mes enfants!” Our guest ran to the car, started the ancient engine, and sputtered off down the trail.
* * * *
Three days later, having put twenty miles between ourselves and the Bolivian army, marching most of the way during a series of heavy storms, we sat under some dripping trees around a hissing fire, staring morosely at our evening meal. I twirled what appeared to be a long, gray, hairless tail around my fork, held it up to my eyes in the gathering gloom and considered it. “Pepe…”
“It’s oxtail soup, Jefe. I followed Señor Debray’s recipe.”
“To the letter?”
“Well, no, not to the letter. You see, there are no oxen in the vicinity, so I had to sort of improvise, you know? I used…”
While Pepe was talking, a tailless, and very frightened, rat scurried by his feet, lighting out for parts unknown.
“No, never mind; don’t tell me. We’ll just let it be your little secret.”
[Editor’s note: for first-time visitors who may be interested in previous entries in the Che diary, most of them are here; the penultimate one is here.]