Jon Lee Anderson's biography of Che Guevara is exhaustively researched, which was a benefit to me, since I had never before studied Che's life in detail, nor had I read about the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis from anything but an American perspective. I found it to be an illuminating, albeit sometimes exhausting, read.
This biography combines several approaches to history in one. In the first section, Anderson provides vivid details of Che's early life, his love of literature and learning, his studies to be a medical doctor, and his travels through Latin America, which eventually helped to lead him to his political awakening as a Marxist. This first section works particularly well as a work of intellectual history, especially with the addition of many quotations from Che's journals, correspondence, and other writings. I felt that I gained a good perspective on Che as an individual here, including his personal battles with very serious asthma, which continued to plague him throughout his life.
The second section of the biography focuses on the Cuban Revolution, with copious details of the Che's leadership in the guerrilla warfare that eventually led to the fall of the Batista regime and the rise of Castro's Cuban republic. This section focuses especially on military history, and on the political tactics that Castro and Che utilized to gain strength in the Cuban countryside as well as internationally. (Anderson's discussion of Castro's tactics to make the world press believe he had a much larger force at his command than he actually did was especially fascinating.) In this section, Anderson shows Che's growth as a leader, as well as his close relationship with Castro. Anderson doesn't flinch from sharing details of Che's responsibility for executions of comrades and of enemies in the field, the darker side of the Cuban Revolution.
The third section, which is the longest in the biography, focuses on several areas: Che's work for the Cuban government to develop Cuba's industrial infrastructure and move its economy from capitalism to socialism; Che's role in the complex international intrigue and negotiations of the time, maneuvering against the US while also playing the USSR and China off each other; and Che's final role as column leader and field commander of two failed insurrections, one in the Congo and one in Bolivia, which eventually cost him his life. There's a wealth of detail to assimilate in this section - names of foreign agents and Cubans fighting by Che's side, complex sequences of diplomatic maneuvers and moves by espionage agents, and lengthy documentation of every military decision taken in the field in the Congo and Bolivia, as well as analysis of all the reasons why those missions failed.
In spite of this flood of names, facts, dates, and places, Anderson doesn't lose sight of his main themes in the biography. I emerged with an understanding of Che's unwavering and strict commitment to Marxism. He gave his life for his belief in the necessity of an international uprising against imperial and capitalist powers. In spite of some differences in opinion between Che and Castro on the best model for the Communist Revolution to follow in Cuba (Che preferred the Maoist model - he was concerned about how close Soviet Communism was to capitalism, and he believed there were many more parallels between the peasants of Cuba and those of China), Anderson presents Che as a dedicated, selfless, and loyal comrade and friend for Castro. He also lived an ascetic life, constantly on guard against receiving any benefits that the average Cuban citizen did not receive. In addition to providing these laudatory aspects of Che's personality, Anderson makes very clear Che's imperfections - his zealous commitment to his political cause meant that his family, including his children, had very little contact with him. When he left Cuba for the Congo, he did not expect to return. He could be overly strict and distanced at home, in the office, or in the field. Taken as a whole, Anderson's portrait of Che provides the reader with an understanding of the importance of his role in Latin American and world politics, both before and after his death, as well as with a richer understanding of this complex man.