The Adventures of China Iron

Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, is, indeed, an adventure, a retelling of the epic Argentinian poem Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez. In Camara’s novel both Fierro and Hernandez featured, but are relegated to the role of minor characters as we instead follow the journey, both literal and metaphorical, of Fierro’s wife, China Iron (‘china’ is a slang term for woman which she assumes as her name, suggesting an ‘everyman’ – that is, ‘everywoman’ – status).

Her adventure begins when Fierro is conscripted and she takes the opportunity to run away from her subservient and servile life. She feels little love for the woman who has raised her, La Negra – “she’d treated me like her slave for most of my childhood” – or her husband: “Everything was filthy about Fierro, even his knife.” She goes with a red-headed Scotswoman, Elizabeth, who is searching for her husband, Oscar, and the land they have bought. She already has two children (which she leaves behind), and she is fourteen years old. The journey is full of adventure and encounter, but it is also a journey in which she discovers herself. At the beginning she declares

“I was tethered by my lack of ideas, by my ignorance, I didn’t know I could stand own my own two feet…”

Soon after she says, “Up until that point, my life had been absent somehow.”

Elizabeth is the catalyst for her discovery of her true self: “I saw the light in her eyes, she opened the door to the world for me.” Her attraction towards Elizabeth is both spiritual and physical. She wishes to “immerse myself in her breath” as they sleep together in the wagon, and soon it is clear that the attraction is mutual as:

“Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.”

The detailed description of their kiss not only emphasises the intimacy of the moment but reminds us that Elizabeth’s appeal is also in her exoticness, with a list of tastes associated with her class and British nationality, as well as the impish “imperious”. Elizabeth also represents Britain, a “land where machines moved by themselves with burning wood,” a land which suggests more possibilities than China was previously aware of. Elizabeth also shares with her British culture; not only tea and whisky but Frankenstein (“a poor forsaken monster made by British science with lightning”) and Oliver Twist, both appropriate to China’s story.

They arrive at the hacienda of Hernandez, author of the original Martin Fierro, China, dressed in male clothing. Here she learns how to appear genteel during the day, while finally releasing her passion for Elizabeth at night:

“…at dinner I copied her manners, now I mirrored her caresses.”

She also has a political awakening as Hernandez describes the process of creating Argentina while at the same time excusing his treatment of the gauchos:

“The nation needed the land to be conquered… And now were are conquering a workforce for the nation.”

He tells Elizabeth that her land is in Indian territory:

“Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentinians.”

This, of course, touches on the propagandist nature of the original poem, and draws attention to the fact that The Adventures of China Iron is about more than the sexual awakening of its protagonist. Both are related, however, as China and Elizabeth venture on and are soon living among the indigenous inhabitants. Here they are finally free: this is both a sexual freedom (“I became aware of the whims of my heart, the different appetites my body could have. I wanted to be both the berry and the mouth biting into it.”) and a political freedom, in a society where “women have the same power as men.”

In this, the novel retains its status as an adventure with an upbeat conclusion which attempts to remake the myth of Argentina. Despite its often cruel and violent setting, it leaves the reader hopeful without seeming shallow, a more difficult trick than it might at first appear. Though ‘rollicking’ is in many ways a fair description, this is also a subtle commentary on national as well as sexual identity, and the International Booker judges are to be commended for selecting it.


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7 Responses to “The Adventures of China Iron”

  1. International Booker Prize 2020 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] another weblog « International Booker Prize 2020 Predictions The Adventures of China Iron […]

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Very interesting. Would a reader need to be familiar with the Hernandez poem to get the most out of this book or could it be read just as effectively as a standalone piece without any real familiarity with the background? I’d be interested in your view.

    (PS I was glad to see at least one book from Charco Press on the international Booker longlist even though your personal favourite didn’t quite make the cut!)

    • 1streading Says:

      I didn’t know much about the poem when I read it. I can see how that would add another layer to your reading but it’s far from necessary.
      In terms of Charco – they managed to pick the only eligible book I hadn’t read!

  3. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    I think it was fine to read it without having read the poem, though I enjoyed reading about it afterwards. I did have a quick look at the translator’s note mid reading and was delighted to see the reference also to William Henry Hudson’s autobiography which I had downloaded a week before as it had been recommended to me after I wrote a post about my 5 favourite nature inspired poems. I actually read a few chapters while I was reading China Iron and immediately saw the connection with the chapter titles and other descriptions, and laughed when the author actually says, son’t worry I won’t go on and on about the plants and flowers and weeds etc.

    I adored this novel and the way it begins as a realistic dystopia, that terrible life that so many young women lived (and still do in some parts of the world) her escape, the humour of learning about the Empire, the horror of Hernandez (also the name of the author of the epic poem) and the reverie of the Indian Territory where they make their home.

    I would love to see it win and agree, they are to be commended for highlighting its worthiness of being shortlisted.

  4. Best Books of 2020 Part 3 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity […]

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