‘The Adventures of China Iron’ Gabriela Cabezón Cámara Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
ISBN-13 : 978-1916465664
In an interview in March 2020, author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, said of her International Booker Prize nominated book. ‘I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina.’ This she achieved in spades. When compared, for instance, to Delia Owens’ ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’, which is much lauded for its descriptive writing, it has to be said that Cámara is streets ahead.
The titular character, China Iron (‘China’ is pronounced ‘cheena’: designation for a female in the Quechua language and ‘Iron’, the English word for Fierro, referencing the gaucho Martín Fierro) is a heroine that I will not soon forget. The book is a retelling of ‘El Gaucho Martín Fierro’ from a post-colonial, feminist point of view and casts Fierro’s wife as the protagonist, demoting Fierro to a minor role. It is told as part history, part love story and part travelogue. At its core is the vast open beauty of Argentina. The inspiration, ‘El Gaucho Martín Fierro’, is a 2,300 + line epic poem by the Argentine José Hernández that was published in two parts, ‘El Gaucho Martín Fierro’ (1872) and ‘La Vuelta de Martín Fierro’ (1879) and is an elegy to the life of the Argentinian gauchos and their contribution to the development of the emerging Argentine state. The poem, written in Spanish, evokes rural Argentina and so was a solid platform for Cámara to invert, and in doing so, realise her ambition of writing a love letter to her homeland.
In synopsis, ‘The Adventures of China Iron’ is a novel about the life and fortunes of China, a fourteen-year-old girl after her husband, Fierro is conscripted into the Argentinian Army. China leaves the estancia (ranch) and the hovel in which she has felt trapped. She joins Liz, a Scottish woman whose husband was also conscripted, on a journey into the vast interior of a burgeoning land. Liz is on route to land which had been purchased by her husband’s employer, to establish her own estancia on this promised land.
The book is split into three parts, ‘The Pampas’, ‘The Fort’ and finally, ‘Indian Territory’. In the initial section, the two women, and China’s dog, Estreya, begin their journey in a wagon which is equipped with all of the comforts England can offer, tea, whisky, curry, medical equipment and a lightning rod. As they travel, Liz begins to educate China about the wider world, and the relationship between them develops, quickly becoming sexual. China is an extrovert who meets the world head-on and glories in everything she encounters. As the journey progresses, she becomes infatuated with the beauty of her homeland. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s skill as a story teller emerges in her depiction of the love that grows between the two women, a love that includes the land, the sky, the fields, the dog, Estreya, the ombú trees, the herd of cattle that accompany them and all the indigenous creatures of the pampas.
During their journey, they are joined by the gaucho, Rosario and his herd of cows. In the second part, ‘The Fort’, we meet Hernández who the author paints as the personification of the activist who shares the genocidal plans of other land-grabbing settlers, intent on wresting the rich land from the native Indian population. We learn that China’s husband fell into Hernández’s hands and that the landowner stole his work and published it as his own before Fierro escaped.
In this middle section of the book the relationship between China and Liz becomes more intensely sexual and the author does a very credible job on portraying this. When our heroine and her lover, along with Rosario, now called Rosa, eventually escape the sadistic Hernández, they leave with more supplies and livestock, but also with extra gauchos who they have freed, planning to later employ them on their own estancia.
In part three, when our travellers encounter the indigenous people of the pampas, Liz is reunited with her husband as is China. The people they join are nomadic free spirits who have created their own utopian world. The book ends with the travellers content in this new, beautiful world, which contrasts so much with Liz’s industrial Britain and China’s brutal Argentina.
‘The Adventures of China Iron’ is not meant to be taken as read, it is a fantasy, a journey from dystopia to utopian, in which the author pays homage to both the beauty and brutality of post-colonial Argentina. The writing is what makes this book shine. China’s voice is vital and vibrant, here she describes Liz, ‘She was my pole and I was the magnetic needle of the compass: my whole body was stretched towards her, it was dwarfed by concentrated desire. It was under the rule of that force that I began to feel and today I believe that it is possible that it will always be this way, that the world is felt in relation to others, with the bond with others. I felt alive and fierce like a herd of predators and loving like Estreya, who celebrates every morning and every reunion as if she was surprised, as if she knew that they could not have happened, you know, my little dog, that chance and death.’
I enjoyed ‘The Adventures of China Iron’ for its eroticism, which is well written, for its story telling which is both revolutionary and comedic. I became subliminally rapt in the expansiveness of the prose and I learned a little about a time and place that I had previously been ignorant of. It is worthy of its place on the shortlist.