Identity, Photographs, and Loving Che
Posted on Apr 24 2012 at 11:56:39 AM in Literature
It is a Thursday evening; the cold wind whips up the leaves on the sidewalk. They spin in zephyrs until they hit grass and then settle into a new pattern on the ground. You walk slowly through the cemetery. Clouds float across the deepening blue sky. You look for freshly turned ground, where they buried your grandmother two days earlier. As you kneel beside her tombstone, you glance around. You are alone; there is no one else in sight. Your eyes catch the tombstone next to your grandmother’s. It is your grandfather’s. Next to his tomb lie your great aunt and her husband; next to that is your baby cousin. Behind them you recognize your great grandparents, and a great aunt and her son. You stand and begin strolling among the tombstones. 2007, 1999, 1987, 1965, 1941, 1932, 1901, 1898, 1888—the numbers flash by your eyes. Row after row after row after row: not only are you are surrounded by your ancestors, but a piece of each of them is in you.
History influences the present. It not only offers an account of why the world may be as it is, it also provides each individual with a foundation upon which to build their life. our histories and our ancestor's histories make up a significant piece of our identities. In Loving Che, a novel by Ana Menendez, the narrator is missing this piece of her identity. She never knew her mother or father and has no documentation of them at all. She literally knows nothing. When she receives a series of photographs in the mail, she suddenly holds in her hands the potential to find that missing piece of her identity. The photographs give context to her life.
The story begins with photographs: “Whenever I travel, I like to spend the last day of my journey in the old part of town, lingering for hours in junk stores whose dusty shelves, no matter where in the world they may be, always seem to be piled high with old magazines and books and yellowed photographs” (1). Already photographs play an important part in the life of the narrator. She uses the photographs to distract herself from the fear of her upcoming flight. These pictures also provide her with something that she never had: a history. She is alive but has no history; the photographs are a history but they have no life. She can imagine a story in them and they provide her with a pretend heritage. “Some nights,” she writes, “…I will take out one of my photographs and imagine that the stranger caught there is a half-forgotten old aunt, or a great-grandmother who smoked cigarettes from a long silver holder. But I know I’m playing a game with history” (1). The protagonist tries to fill her emptiness, her longing to know her past. She is unable to do so with the photographs—she knows she is only pretending: “for all my imaginings, these images will remain individual mysteries, numbed and forever silenced by the years between us” (1). She wishes she had something to reveal the mysteries of her past, even one photograph as a document, as evidence of her heritage. In her book, On Photography, Susan Sontag writes, “Far from having been themselves demystified by reality, the American arts—notably photography—now aspired to do the demystifying” (27). There are at least two ideas about how to view photographs: one sees photographs as purely documentary, the other as purely idealized. The narrator of Loving Che is suspended between these two ideas: she desires a photograph to “demystify” her past, to show her the truth, but when the photographs arrive, she realizes that they are not undeniable evidence.
Through the late twentieth century, photographs of Ernesto “Che” Guevara became a commercial tool. His face was continually exploited for monetary gain, to the point that Alberto Korda, the photographer of the most famous image, won a settlement of $50,000 from a British advertising agency (Marien 311). Che was feared and hated by the United States government (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/guevar.htm). He helped Fidel Castro rise to power, wrote extensively on guerilla warfare, and eventually moved to Bolivia where he helped lead a guerilla war in the Santa Cruz region. When the narrator of Loving Che receives letters from a woman named Teresa that tell her that Che is her father, she does not know how to react. Photographs accompanied the letter. These photographs were taken from magazines and newspapers; it is strange that a woman as intimate with Che as Teresa claims to be has no personal pictures of her lover. All she has are commercial images. It seems as though this idea would contradict the intimacy of the letters, yet these photographs compel the narrator to search deeper; they pull her towards some sort of truth.
As you stand examining row after row of tombstone, remembering the relatives you knew, the stories of the ones who came before your time, and imagining lives for those of whom you have no knowledge, you suddenly realize that you care. Never, until this point, have you considered the lives of your ancestors as valuable; never, until now, have you dwelled on the impact they had on you. Pieces of them are in you. They have influenced you far beyond the simple fact of shared DNA. The actions of your great-grandparents influenced your grandparents, whose actions influenced your parents who, in turn, influenced you: their beliefs affected yours, their values, their ideas, their strengths, their weaknesses: a part of them is in you. It’s a fact: you cannot escape from those who came before you; you cannot escape from the past before your own.
The photographs of Che are a conduit for truth; in this, they are not the truth (can the truth guide itself?), nor a lie. They themselves may not be historically accurate or ‘true’ within the specific context of Teresa’s letters, but they can provide an idea that compliments the story within which they lie. While Teresa claimed to have known Che intimately, there was no possible way that the photos were taken when she was with him. She claimed that their relationship was a secret. The photos do not document the times when Teresa knew him. They could, however, illustrate the ways in which Teresa knew him. For instance, in one photograph, Che is lying on a bed, drinking a beverage through a straw, with his shirt off. This photograph seems intimate, it seems as if it could document a time when Teresa was with him. But the photograph was in a newspaper, it was a photograph that anyone could see and that anyone could have taken: it was not precisely true within her context, in that it did not document a time when they were together, but it was not exactly false either. Teresa begins, “He opens his eyes and watches me, propped on one elbow” (100). The photo, in which he is propped up on one elbow, appears directly after these words. “I am above him,” she continues, “watching him, this man who is not a hero or a photograph; who is only warm, smelling of moss ground, his body before me, freckled and soft, his skin tacky to the touch with dried sweat” (101). There are two moments represented here. The first moment is when the photograph was actually taken. This photograph documents an actual moemnt in time, a moment to which Teresa supposedly did not have access. The second instance is the one that Teresa describes. Her description matches the photograph, but the photograph is not the same instant as her description. The question then becomes, is Teresa telling the truth or telling a lie? What is the truth?
As the narrator struggles to answer this question, she works closely with the letters and photographs: “I spent hours studying the handwriting, trying to place a date. I repaired a few of the photographs. I studied his mouth, his hands, I traced the curve of his eyes. All this I did with a cool remove, as if the story contained there were not my own…” (159). She is desperately looking for one single thing to assure her that this story is the truth, even if it is as small as one physical similarity between her supposed father and herself. Her desire to be loved is not unfounded. Throughout the novel, her interpersonal interactions take place mainly with strangers. Her grandfather, the only person the reader is sure she is close to, dies as soon as her search is beginning. Her “closest friends”, with whom she stays occasionally when traveling, remain unnamed. The rest of those with whom she comes into contact, she leaves shortly after meeting: Ileana, Dr. Caraballo, Jacinto, Judi, Caradid and her son, and the man at the bookstore. She is mainly alone. “I allowed myself the little hope that my mother had sent me a love letter,” she says (160). She does not seem to need a lover, she simply longs for a mother.
Slowly, the images of Che come to mean more to her than simply photographs. She begins to believe the story that they tell. Susan Sontag says, “Nobody understands how anything, least of all a photograph, could be transcendent” (31). These photographs reach through time and through doubt to touch her heart. She is attached to this story, regardless of whether it is or is not true. Though the images were of Che, the story was by Teresa and the images were chosen. She began to feel close to “this unknown woman who more and more I was coming to genuinely think of as a newly discovered part of myself” (162). She began to take on the story surrounding the images of Che as a part of her identity. No other photographs had ever affected her in this way. Though she imagined stories for images of strangers, these images, though still of a stranger, captured her in a way she couldn’t understand. They seemed to attach themselves to the missing part of her identity. Dr. Caraballo writes to tell the narrator that the story is most likely false, “that the story this woman has written is mostly the work of imagination” (161). Yet the narrator continues to think and dwell on Teresa and her story, the woman claiming to be her mother. She tried to “make memory, about who my mother could be” (161). She tried to fill the hole created by the absence of knowledge about her ancestors, by shaping and reshaping the letters and photographs in her mind.
As you stand, deep in thought, your gaze begins to penetrate the letters on the nearest tombstone. The wind whips around you fiercely; the night is falling and the cold is creeping into the fingers tips of your gloves. The letters on the stones march over your eyes and through your mind. You read, slowly, over and over, the words: In Loving Memory… the acts of this life are the destiny of the next… Beloved… The letters begin to blur and change. Slowly the letters form your name. Beloved… always loved… not forgotten… the acts of this life…
One step at a time, the narrator begins to believe the story told by the letters and photographs. While at a hotel in Havana, Cuba, she finds herself standing on a balcony, thinking about Teresa as if there were no questions about parentage. She looks out at the houses around her and “wondered from which one Teresa had made her dreams. Upon which balcony did she stand to stare…where I now stood at the window, as if I were looking down into the eyes of my own past?” (180) She, in the early morning tiredness, is thinking based on the assumption that Teresa is her past, that Teresa is her mother. Somehow, these forms of art have transcended the need to know for certain whether they are true or false. Throughout her journey, the factual, documentary qualities of the images within the story have decreased in importance. The most important thing now is whether the narrator believes the story that has been woven for her.
At last, she ceases her quest. She places all the photographs and letters in a box, stores the charcoal drawing of Che she obtained while in Cuba in the closet, and determines to “forget the strange packet of memories [her] mother had bequeathed…” (220). She then travels to Paris. But, somehow, just like the past of your ancestors will not leave you untouched, nor will your own past leave you. It continues to haunt its predecessors, in the same way a photograph leaves traces on the future. She tried to forget: “And yet, once an idea grips you, even the physical world will conspire to hold you fast to it. So it is when every object—every green branch, every cloud shadow—recalls to us a beloved. And so it was with me and Teresa’s story and the memory of the man she had loved” (221). The narrator began to see Che’s face everywhere: in advertisements, on the face of another human, in plants and statues. The photographs, now etched into her mind, began to reappear, and with them, her longing to know her parents. Despite her brave attempts to forget the letters, despite her desperate attempt to drive them from her mind, despite ignoring the agony of losing the one thing she never had, she could not escape from their looming presence in her life. If only she could know that the story was true. Then she could be at peace.
Photographs have many functions. One function is to show “that there is another world” (Sontag 34). Photographs show that there are many other worlds, worlds gone by. The photographs of Che that haunted the narrator of Loving Che, show her another world, a world in Cuba, a world of rebellion and love, the world of her mother, the world of the past. Of her past. She looks carefully at the image that the Parisian shopkeeper hands her, a photograph of Che, one hand on his hip, a camera around his neck, and a smile on his lips. “To come upon this photo now,” she thinks, “so far from home. Surely I walked with ghosts. There he stands for all eternity, the young soldier with a yearning to record the world that lies before him, his hands light on the camera, his eyes searching ahead” (227). And in an instant she believes. She believes the stories her mother left for her, she believes the images depict her father, and she loves them, she loves “the beautiful stranger who, in a different dream, might have been the father of my heart” (228).
…are the destiny of the next…beloved… What is your name doing on that tombstone? You blink. It is no longer there. No, all that remains is the name of some long lost relative. Someday, your name might be on that tombstone. Who will read it? Who will care? You glance at of the trees silhouetted against pale yellow cloud-stripes splayed against a deepening blue sky. You turn and walk back towards your grandmother’s grave, stopping one more time, kneeling and stroking the soft edge of the stone. “Goodbye, grandmother,” you say, then stand, and stroll off into the night.