The Adventures of China Iron

Translated Fiction by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre

Wow. This is quietly revolutionary. And funny. Educational. Expansive. Luminous. Brilliant.

I want it to win.

Drawing inspiration from other texts that have in turn been inspired by a life, or experience lived in Argentina, whether the epic poem ‘the gaucho’ Martin Fierro by José Hernández (a lament for a disappearing way of life) or the autobiography Far Away & Long Ago of the naturalist  William Henry Hudson, The Adventures of China Iron is a beautiful elegy (for there will be consolation), a brilliant feat of the imagination that takes readers on an alternative journey.

China Iron, wife of Martin Fierro, who in the original version was given just a few lines, is now the lead and is about to awaken to all that is and can be.

Her adventure is a heroine’s journey from dystopia to utopia, from naive to knowledgeable, from woman to young brother to lover, from unconscious to awakened, from surviving to aware to thriving.

While I was writing I felt I was describing the mind-blowing experience of being a newborn since in China’s eyes everything is new and has the shape and shininess of a new discovery. She is trying out her freedom, travelling for the first time, leaving the tiny settlement in which she had spent her whole life. She is discovering the world, the different paths through it, love. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Part One – The Pampas
China was passed over to Martin Fierro in holy matrimony in a card game. She bore him two children before he was conscripted, what a relief. Scottish Liz had her husband Oscar taken in error, so she packs a wagon to go and find the land they’ve procured, taking China and the dog Estreya with her. This is the beginning of China’s awakening, she will learn from Liz and being in nature, on the move.

Who knows what storms Liz had weathered. Maybe loneliness. She had two missions in life: to resuce her gringo husband and to take charge of the estancia they they were to oversee.

Liz informs China about the ways of the British Empire, clothing, manners, geography, Indian spices, African masks. Some things she understands, others take longer to reconcile. She discovers ‘a birds eye view’ from up there on the wagon.

And I began to see other perspectives: the Queen of England – a rich, powerful woman who owned millions of people’s lives, but who was sick and tired of jewels and of meals in palaces built where she was monarch of all she surveyed – didn’t see the world in the same way as, for example a gaucho in his hovel with his leather hides who burns dung to keep warm.

For the Queen the world was a sphere filled with riches belonging to her, and that she could order to be extracted from anywhere; for the gaucho, the world was a flat surface where you galloped around rounding up cows, cutting the throats of your enemies before they cut your own throat, or fleeing conscription or battles.

China leaves behind neglect and enters the realm of non-violent company, nourishment and knowledge. She comes to think of the wagon as home and falls for Liz’s charm. They track Indians by examining the dung of their animals. When they see it’s fresh, they stop and change.

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 cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad.

Photo by Juanjo Menta on Pexels.com

They encounter a lone gaucho (cowboy) Rosario and his herd of cows, he becomes the fourth member of their party. We learn his tragic backstory as well. He laughs at China’s clothing, but says it’s a good idea and that all women should carry a knife the way men do.

We knew he was talking about his mother and how he’d have preferred her to have grown a beard if it meant she’d have stayed a widow with him by her side instead of that monster.

They make slow progress, in part due to China’s desire that this in-between peaceful co-existence, the happiest she’s ever experienced, never ends.

In Part Two, The Fort – they arrive at the estancia run by Hernandez, they dress in their chosen uniforms Liz had allocated from the stores inside the wagon;

uniforms for every kind of position on the estancia according to the imagination of the aristocrat and his stewards, Liz and Oscar.

Here they come across the opposite of what they’d found in the plains, here is a world run by the self-righteous Hernandez, who runs his estancia like a dictatorial regime, with strict rules and regulation, reward and punishment, inspiring hatred and allowing revenge. Seeing himself as the seed of civilisation, others as savages with no sense of history and the gauchos as his protegé, he sets out to retrain them in his ways, with a whip and a rod.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Part Three – Indian Territory
In the final part they come into contact with the indigenous population and even the air feels easier to breathe. Here the language changes, perception changes, there is acceptance, equilibrium, reunion.

This whole section reminded me of the shape-shifting shamans, of a higher perception or consciousness, living with the indigenous people allows them to let go of all expectations and see with different eyes.

“Although we have been made
to believe that if we let go
we will end up with nothing,
life reveals just the opposite:
that letting go is
the real path to freedom.”

– Soygyal Rinpoche

I absolutely loved this, I hope it wins the International Booker 2020 thoroughly deserving in my opinion.

Ever since I had the idea of giving China a voice, I had one thing clear in my mind: I wanted her tale to be an experience of the beauty of nature, freedom in body and mind; a story of all the potential and possibilities in store when you encounter other people, of the beauty of light. I wanted to write an elegy to the flora and fauna of Argentina, or whatever is left of it, an elegy to what used to be here before it all got transformed into one big grim factory poisoned with pesticides. I wanted to write a novel infused with light. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

Further Reading

Interview: International Booker Prize 2020 Interview with author and translators

Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction

‘cruzar el charco’

It seems appropriate to begin this post with a word, since this reading and writing adventure takes place word by word, across time and continents. Our word for today is charco which means puddle in Spanish and is also a colloquialism in some Latin American countries referring to the Atlantic Ocean.

And cruzar el charco means crossing the puddle, a way of referring to when someone is leaving the country, taking a trip somewhere far from home, across the ocean.

And this is what I have decided to do in 2019, to take a literary trip across the ocean to Latin America, and I’ll be doing that with the help of Charco Press, a small press based in Edinburgh, creating a bridge of cultural discovery for us to access the richness of that new world with a guide to contemporary literature authors that will likely be unfamiliar to us all.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So this year I have taken a subscription with Charco Press, so I don’t choose the books, I will read whatever they publish in their catalogue in 2019.

This will mean it’s not necessarily going to be something I might ordinarily read, I’ll be reading across borders and outside my comfort zone. But what a journey. No vaccinations required, no need for language classes, although we may still learn a few words along the way.

I have already read the first book and my review will be coming shortly, however, below are summaries of the six books I’ll be reading from this part of the world this year, in case you’d like to join me. As I read them, I’ll link my reviews back to this summary post.

Do let me know if any of these titles interest you, or whether you’ve read any other books published by Charco Press that you have enjoyed.

Click on the title to visit the Charco bookstore.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) (tr. Ellen Jones)

In this highly original collection of interconnected short stories, the Guatemalan countryside is ever-present, a place of timeless peace yet also riven by sudden violence. The stories provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man struck time and again by misfortune, as he confronts the crude realities of farming life. Over the course of these episodes we meet merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, drug dealers and fallen angels, all wanting their piece of the pie. Told with precision and a stark beauty, in a style that recalls Hemingway, Trout, Belly Up is a unique ensemble of beguiling, disturbing stories set in the heart of the rural landscape in a country where violence is never far from the surface.

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina) (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

In Feebleminded, Harwicz drags us to the border between fascination and discomfort as she explores aspects of desire, need and dependency through the dynamics between a mother and her daughter, searching through their respective lives to find meaning and define their own relationship.

Written in a wild stream of consciousness narration in the best tradition of Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute, and embedded in a trend of elusive violence so ingrained in contemporary Latin American fiction, Feebleminded follows the pair on a roller coaster of extreme emotions and examinations into the biographies of their own bodies where everything – from a childhood without answers to a desolate, loveless present – has been buried.

Told through brief but extremely powerful chapters, this short lyrical novel follows Die, My Love (my review here) as the second part in what Harwicz has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’.  An incredibly insightful interrogation on the human condition, desire and the burden of deep-rooted family mandates.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (Argentina) (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste begins in the great pause before a storm. Reverend Pearson is evangelizing across the Argentinian countryside with Leni, his teenage daughter, when their car breaks down. This act of God – or fate – leads them to the home of an aging mechanic called Gringo Brauer and his boy named Tapioca.

As a long day passes, curiosity and intrigue transform into an unexpected intimacy between four people: one man who believes deeply in God, morality, and his own righteousness, and another whose life experiences have only entrenched his moral relativism and mild apathy; a quietly earnest and idealistic mechanic’s assistant, and a restless, sceptical preacher’s daughter. As tensions between these characters ebb and flow, beliefs are questioned and allegiances are tested, until finally the growing storm breaks over the plains.

Selva Almada’s exquisitely crafted début, with its limpid and confident prose, is profound and poetic, a tactile experience of arid landscapes, heat, squat trees, broken cars, sweat-stained shirts, and ruined lives. The Wind That Lays Waste is a philosophical, beautiful, and powerfully distinctive novel that marks the arrival in English of an author whose talent and poise are undeniable.

Loop by Brenda Lozano (Mexico) (tr. Annie McDermott)

Loop is a love story narrated from the point of view of a woman who waits for her boyfriend Jonás to return from a trip to Spain. They met when she was recovering from an accident and he had just lost his mother. Soon after that, they were living together. She waits for him as a sort of contemporary Penelope who, instead of knitting only to then un-knit, she writes and erases her thoughts in a notebook: Proust, a dwarf, a swallow, a dreamy cat or David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’, make up some of the strands that are woven together in this tapestry of longing and waiting.

Written in a sometimes irreverent style, in short fragments that at points are more like haikus than conventional narrative prose, this is a truly original reflection on love, relationships, solitude and the aesthetics and purpose of writing.

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (Colombia) (tr. Sophie Hughes & Juana Adcock)

In a run-down neighbourhood, in an unnamed seaside city with barely any amenities, a father and son struggle to keep their heads above water. Rather than being discouraged by their difficulties and hardship, they are spurred to come up with increasingly outlandish plans for their survival. Even when a terrible, macabre event rocks the neighbourhood’s bar district and the locals start to flee, father and son decide to stay put. What matters is staying together. This is a bold poignant text that interplays a very tender father-son relationship while exposing homosexuality and homophobia with brutal honesty. With delicate lyricism and imagery, Caputo is extremely original and creative producing a tale that harmoniously balances violence, discrimination, love, sex and defiance, demonstrating that the he is a storyteller of great skill.

An Orphan World is about poverty, and the resourceful ways in which people manage to confront it. At the same time, it is a reflection about the body as a space of pleasure and violence. Perhaps above all else, An Orphan World is a brutally honest love letter between a father and son.

Adventures of China IronThe Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) (tr. Iona Macintyre & Fiona Mackintosh)

(* China. Pronounced ‘cheena’: designation for female, from the Quechua. Iron: The English word for Fierro, reference to the gaucho Martín Fierro, from José Hernández’s epic poem.)

This is a riotous romp taking the reader from the turbulent frontier culture of the pampas deep into indigenous territories. It charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. 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 its national struggles. After a clash with Colonel Hernández (the author who ‘stole’ Martín Fierro’s poems) and a drunken orgy with gauchos, they eventually find refuge and a peaceful future in a utopian indigenous community, the river- dwelling Iñchiñ people.

Seen from an ox-drawn wagon, the narrative moves through the Argentinian landscape, charting the flora and fauna of the Pampas, Gaucho culture, Argentinian nation-building and British colonial projects.

In a unique reformulation of history and literary tradition, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, with humour and sophistication, re-writes Martín Fierro from a feminist, LGBT, postcolonial point of view. She creates a hilarious novel that is nevertheless incisive in its criticism of the way societies come into being, and the way they venerate mythical heroes.

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Some promising, diverse explorations across this puddle, I do hope you might join me at one of these destinations!

Further Reading: Exposing the UK to Contemporary Latin American Literature