Books in Brief: Before Che

May 20, 2022

Peter Rutkoff, Before Che: M-26-7. Gambier, OH: XOXOX Press, 2019. 284pp.

An emeritus professor of American Studies at Kenyon College, Peter Rutfkoff has produced a work of fiction that juxtaposes International Brigaders in the Spanish Civil War with the fighters preparing for the seizure of the Army barracks in July 1953 that launched the 26 July Movement and began the Cuban revolution. Written as a report from the New York Times writer, Herbert Matthews, to the paper’s publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzburger, Rutkoff’s book is an attempt to illuminate a “history that will remain in the shadows,” a history not of the events but of the people and their political motivations that fueled the political commitments of the Left in the middle of the twentieth century. Camaraderie, characters and character play the most central roles in this narrative. We follow four main figures, both fictional and real-life, as they prepare for among other events, the battle of Brunete and the storming of the Santiago military site. That Rutkoff takes liberties with facts is not a surprise as the purpose of the narrative is to focus on why people fought and what bound them together, rather than providing a purely historical account of what happened. That Oliver Law survived Spain and fights in Cuba is not too distracting because he is meant to show a through-line of heroism and leadership that defined both times and both places. Along the way, one meets some of the key figures from the Spanish Civil War and the Cuban Revolution, Enrique Lister, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Fidel and Raúl Castro. But Rutkoff’s focus is on his fictional characters, and his descriptions of decades-long friendships and intimacies that are really fueled by the political affinities that link his characters: African-American soldiers, the Cypriot volunteer, the Cuban revolutionary, and men and women more generally. Through these characters, we are meant to see a continuum of ideas, commitments and politics that binds Spain in 1936-1939 to Cuba of 1953.