Book Review - The Adventures of China Iron

José Hernández’s 19th century epic poem Martín Fierro (originally published in two parts, in 1872 and 1879) is dominated by the macho gaucho, a nomadic horseman and cowherd, who became an outlaw and sought refuge among the Indians. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s feminist reinterpretation of this seminal Argentinian work, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, certainly passes the Bechdel–Wallace test. She focuses on two plucky women who cross the pampas in search of a new way of life. The word china refers to a girl, wife or servant. In Hernández’ poem, China is Fierro’s put-upon teenage spouse and warrants only a brief mention. In The Adventures of China Iron Cámara elevates her to the status of heroine. China appropriates her derogatory name, learns to think and act for herself and, in doing so, enjoys a freedom she had never thought possible.

After their husbands are conscripted into the army to fight on the Indian frontier, China impulsively joins forces with Liz, a confident, cultured Scotswoman who has decided to go in search of her spouse and the land they had bought to farm. Accompanied by her faithful dog, Estreya, China jumps on board Liz’s wagon and enjoys the sexual and cultural education that ensues. Supping on armadillo stew and Scottish whisky, Liz informs China that the British Empire has built the world and decided its shape: that’s why Great Britain, “the land where machines moved by themselves with burning wood” is on top of the globe, she claims.

They are joined by an outlawed gaucho, Rosario, and his herd of cattle. The trio experience a joyous trek across the pampas, enjoying the play of light, the numerous species of plants and animals. For China her communion with the land is an epiphany: “in my pampa, life is life in the air. Even celestial sometimes; far from the shack that had been my home, the world was paradise…I felt the light inside me, felt I was little more than a restless mass of flashes and sparks.”  They respect their environment and only kill what they need to eat. Along the way, they learn each other’s histories and China finds her deepest desires are awakened. Gradually, she recognises that the open air of the pampas is much clearer than the air in England described by Liz.

The first fort they reach turns out, in a metafictional twist, to be José Hernández’s estancia. He is a drunken bully who preaches day and night about the importance of discipline and morality while nation building. He treats his workforce with contempt as they systematically contribute to the near extinction of the indigenous population. Pompous about his achievements “the colonel droned on about his cows, rural industry, about how barely thirty years before he’d seen the beacons of civilisation come to Argentina… the transformation that he personally was bringing about…we’ve had to sacrifice our compassion, we must all sacrifice ourselves in order to consolidate the Argentine Nation.”

Cámara gives the classic narrative of macho men corralling the native people and cultivating the vast grasslands a deliberately queer slant. The two women choose love over violence, revelling in energetic sex together. In the final part of the novel, the three companions join the Iñchiñ tribe. For China, the might of the British Empire recedes in her imagination to be replaced by the beauty of an “unencumbered” nomadic existence where different languages intermingle, they are free to move with nature’s rhythms and love remains fluid and unshackled. Brilliantly translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, this is heartfelt, dreamlike paean to Argentina’s past and what might have been had the pampas been left alone.

Originally publihsed by the TLS