Posts Tagged ‘Gabriela Cabezon Camara’

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity 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 to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

The Adventures of China Iron

March 5, 2020

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.