Clowns With Kalashnikovs
At the time of his arrest, Debray was 27 years old. He was roughly the same age as John Lennon--and like Lennon, he was fated to experience the most exciting years of his life before he turned 30.
Even worse, his four years in prison meant that this icon of the era had missed the whole of the "swinging" '60s: About the Beatles, or May '68 in Paris, he knew little. When he was finally freed from prison in 1971, he was a man out of sync with his time, and with his most intense moments of happiness behind him:
In Latin America our weapons were pathetic, our plans crazed, our considerable efforts without much effect, yet when I mull over those years now they emit an aura of seriousness, something authentic and luminous. And there were truly radiant moments, times when physical well-being verged on the unreal; the magical sensations I remember from a solitary exploration on foot of the mountainous jungles of Bolivia in 1966, a few months before joining Guevara. From my passage among "men of power" in France, a "serious" situation in a country of repute that counts in the world, I retain--perhaps because the body had so little to do with the transaction--no memories of pure or full joy. Despite the interesting foreign visits, the wealth of information gathered, the vanities of petty importance, I cannot rid myself of a sense of artificiality and emptiness. Maruiac used to say that in politics one cannot be happy twice.
The best parts of Debray's memoir, like this passage, are of a very high order: lucid, lyrical, full of feeling.
But other parts, alas, are prolix, self-absorbed and full of specious casuistry. "We are all Gauleiters," he asserts with peremptory confidence. Well, no, most of us are not Gauleiters--simply because most of us, for better or worse, aren't nearly as fixated on fantasies of sovereign power as Monsieur Debray elsewhere confesses that he is. ("To tell the truth I could not cry: 'King Fidel is dead!' until I was able to continue with equal piety, in the same breath: 'Long live King François, his oak and our rose!'")
The 1970s were something of a lost decade for Debray. He championed the "third way" of Salvador Allende--a radical socialist program pursued through moderate and legal means--and Allende, following in Castro's footsteps, treated him as a confidante. After Allende's overthrow, Debray drifted back to Cuba, where he grew progressively disenchanted with Castro's dictatorship. Home in France, he took "an openly reformist line"--and thus came into contact with the leader of France's resurgent Socialist Party, François Mitterrand.
Explaining his recurrent pledges of fealty to rulers like Mitterrand, he cites as precursors Seneca and Voltaire, and characteristically quotes Malraux, a mythomaniac as self-exculpating as Debray: "'It's too late to act on something,' Malraux once said, 'one can now only act on someone.' This despairing observation holds good for all time"--as if Seneca had no choice but to tutor Nero, and Voltaire had been forced to accept the patronage of Frederick the Great.
Acknowledging the expectation that he will express some sort of remorse for at least some of the more reckless passages in his political life, he stubbornly demurs. "How simple everything would be," he writes, "if communism had just been a machine for making prison camps! The curse (or the blessing, I am not sure which) is that between the crimes it produced fraternity, self-denial, optimism, courage and generosity." Castro's Communism was "a corrupting and uplifting machine for making people worse and better than they are." He cannot forget "the superior human qualities of the militants who kept the inhuman machine running."