The Adventures of China Iron
By Gabriela Cabezon Camara
Buy this book from hive.co.uk to support The Reading Agency and local bookshops at no additional cost to you.
I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to take the scissors and cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad. Good boy she said to me, then pulled my face towards her and kissed me on the mouth. It surprised me, I didn’t understand, I didn’t know you could do that and it was revealed to me so naturally: why wouldn’t you be able to do that? Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth, her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.
1872. The pampas of Argentina. China is a young woman eking out an existence in a remote gaucho encampment. After her no-good husband is conscripted into the army, China bolts for freedom, setting off on a wagon journey through the pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a settler from Scotland. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to the ruthless violence involved in nation-building.
This subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic Martín Fierro is a celebration of the colour and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom. With humour and sophistication, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara has created a joyful, hallucinatory novel that is also an incisive critique of national myths.Tweet
Resources for this book
Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize. It is the retelling of epic poem of Martin Fierro. Set in 1872 the book charts the adventures of China an orphan who is treated like a slave by her guardians then married to a drunk, abusive gaucho with two children by the age of 14. When he is conscripted into the army she takes the chance to escape. She joins Liz, a Scottish woman, and a stray dog to travel in a wagon across the pampas of Argentina. Liz her friend and soon to become lover schools her on the ways of the British Empire. Their eyes are opened up by richly diverse flora and fauna, culture and languages of Argentina. After clashing with Colonel Hernandez at the fort they eventually end up living with the indigenous river dwelling Linchin people. A tale of friendship, self discovery and sexual awakening full of vivid descriptions. Not having read the original poem I found some of the translation difficult to understand. Overall an interesting, enjoyable read.
The Adventures of China Iron is a retelling of the Argentine epic poem "El Gaucho Martin Fierro" from the point of view of Martin's wife. China has had a difficult start in life, having been enslaved by an abusive couple and then married off to a gaucho singer who mistreated her. When he is conscripted she decides to leave her children in the care of an elderly couple and joins a Scottish adventurer called Liz who is travelling across the Pampas. The book vividly describes the landscape, flora and fauna, animal inhabitants, and weather of the Pampas, and I very much enjoyed learning about this part of Argentina. The book also charts the emotional, intellectual and sexual journey China undertakes during her adventures. At the same time the book also describes the tensions between the traditional gaucho way of life and the coming of industrialisation to Argentina. I enjoyed the story of the journey across the Pampas, and the stay in the fort. The third part of the novel, where China and Liz end up living a utopian life with an indigenous tribe was written in hallucinogenic prose ( mirroring the tribes use of mushrooms). Both husbands, and China's children also end up living with the tribe. The happy ending seemed too good to get true, and contrived. Only on reading about the original poem the book is based on did I understand why this happened. I think you would probably get much more enjoyment from the book if you had studied the original poem and its background first. Without this context I certainly struggled with aspects of it.
Longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020 and translated from Spanish, this book describes the physical, spiritual and sexual journey of a young woman across the plains of Argentina. The writing is often poetic and sensual but there are many grittily brutal sections too and some humour. China's lesbian awakening with her British companion is graphically described, leaving little to the imagination. At the start of the book poor China is married to a drunk, abusive Gaucho with two children at the age of 14. She has been raised by a guardian who has treated her like a slave and even failed to give her a name. By the end of the story she has found happiness living amongst a community of natives in a kind of transcendental paradise.
I knew nothing about the Martin Fierro poem before reading this book nor about life in 19th century Argentina so I found it an interesting read. I was put off a little by the sometimes dreamy writing style but found it a reasonably enjoyable read.
Complex meanderings of nomadic travel in the 19th century across the Argentina Pampas. Wonderful descriptions of the desert, trees and flowers. I could feel the dust on me. good gripping story painting a vivid picture of contrasting life of Argentina with memories of Great Britain. Struggles of China, called Josefina (great name!), with her naivety of life that her new friend Liz is more than willing to educate with her knowledge and experiences. So, graphic and explosive descriptions of lesbian and gay sexual details, which are boundless. A good, riveting read which I enjoyed.
"She looked at my doubtfully, passed me a cup of hot liquid and said ‘tea’ in English, assuming, correctly, that I wouldn’t know the word. ‘Tea’ she said to me, and that word - which in Spanish, ‘ti’, sounds like a gift ‘to you’, ‘for you’ - is apparently a daily custom in England, and that’s how I learnt my first word in that language which was my mother tongue. And tea is what I’m drinking now, while the world seems beset by darkness and violence, by a furious noise that is in fact just one of the frequent storms that shake this river."
Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre from Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s 2017 novel Las aventuas de la China Iron, this book is part of a (welcome) recent trend to retell classic literature from a different perspective. Here the foundational Argentinian epic poem, by José Hernández, about the gaucho Martin Fierro is re-told from the viewpoint of his wife, mentioned only briefly in passing in the original, and the whole, including Fierro’s own story, given a LGBT+ perspective.
At the start of the novel, Fierro having been forcibly conscripted, his wife meets a red-headed Englishwoman (or possibly a Scot - as the translator's note, English/Scottish/British are used rather interchangably in the original, reflecting an Argentinian view), Liz, whose husband was also taken.
Fierro's wife has no parents (and is likely an illegitimate child of a landowner father with someone from a different social class), and doesn't know her real birth name. She is known by her husband as'China', which as Liz points out is a generic and not particularly flattering term meaning woman/girl/servant [*] rather than a personal name, and so she ends up known as China Josephina Star Iron - Josephina an adopted name and Star and Iron the Anglicization of her dog's name and her husband's surname Fierro.
[* for the English reader, the similar but different sobriquet 'China' in Cockney rhyming slang does cause some confusion]
The two women travel together across the pampas, reaching a fort, and then on into Indian territory, seeking their husbands (rather half-enthusiastically in China's case) and some land that Liz and her husband had come to Argentina to farm, eventually finding them all, although not in the way they, and the reader conditioned by the original epic poem, might suspect.
The set-up of the novel is excellent, and ambition admirable, and the execution is also very well done, but I didn't find it a particularly satisfying personal reading experience.
I found both the first and third sections of the novel dragged a little. They are filled with lots of nature writing, plus, in the final section, a rather magic-mushroom-fuelled idealised view of the pan-sexual nature-infused lifestyle of the Indians they encounter. The intention, showing the beauty of both the local flora and fauna and the indigenous culture, and the harmony between them, before this was spoiled by settlement and industrialization, I understand but the subject matter didn't hold my attention.
I rather more appreciated the middle section, at the fort. The fort turns out to be run by a Colonel José Hernández, here, in a meta-device, reinvented as a keen enthusiast for economic development, as well as having stolen the songs of the gaucho Fierro, and published them, profitably, as his own. And for the English reader, his admiration for the blueprint presented by the English industrial revolution and the development of the railways, makes for an interesting point of reference.
But herein I think lies my personal issue, my own failing not the book's, with the rest of the novel. In this section, the authorial link to the original poem is very clear, but it made me suspect I had missed much of the intertextuality elsewhere. This Spanish language review (https://www.enestosdias.com.ar/3333-las-aventuras-de-la-china-iron-la-intertextualidad-al-palo) suggests a proper appreciation requires much greater familiarity with the original poem than I have.
And this knowledge gap was, I think, exacerbated by the translators, understandably, deciding to use their own translation where Cabezón Cámara quotes from, or alludes to, the original, rather than the classic 1935 Walter Owen version (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/58/The_Gaucho_Martin_Fierro_-_Jose_Hernandez.pdf). I can see their rationale, but it does make cross-references harder to spot - e.g. Liz's husband Oscar is referred to as "what Fierro called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain", but I am not sure what this refers to in the Owen version. In the Owen version, when Fierro is conscripted, others caught up are:
"A gringo hurdy-gurdy man,
With a dancing monkey there,
Was doing his bit to help the fun;
They roped him too, though he tried to run;
A big soft-looking fellow was he,—
And he cried for sheer despair.
And an English digger of ditches too,
That had dodged the draft before,
By telling the Justice, I understand,
That he came from 'Inca-la-Perra’ land,—
He took to his heels and got to the hills
By the skin of his teeth, no more."
Which, if either, is the Jimmy Gringo, I am unsure.
So overall - 4 stars for the conception and execution and as a recommendation to others, but 3 for my personal experience.