After an enjoyable stay in snowy Norway (in a place I’m sure I’ll be visiting again later this year), we must move on as time’s pressing and we still have a few stops to make on our lengthy International Booker Prize longlist journey. This time we’re touching down in Argentina, where a young woman is about to embark on a journey of her own, crossing the pampas in the company of a lady on a mission, a runaway gaucho and a dog. It’s a harsh landscape with dangers on the horizon, yet I get the feeling that this will be a much smoother ride across the country – you see, on our latest adventure, those we encounter come less in war than in love…
The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
– Charco Press, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Somewhere in the Argentinian provinces, a young woman is preparing for a journey, not in search of her husband, who has been conscripted and taken away to fight against the local ‘Indians’, but simply away from a life of restrictions and poverty. Her name?
Now I’m called China, Josephine Star Iron and Tararira. From the old days, I’ve only kept Iron (the English for Fierro), which was never my name to begin with, and Star, which I chose when I chose Estreya. My real name? Well, I didn’t have one; I was born an orphan, if that’s possible, as if the violet-flowered pastures that softened the savagery of the pampa had somehow given birth to me.
p.2 (Charco Press, 2019)
It’s a bold undertaking for a poor woman still in her teens, but she’s fortunate enough to be taken in by Elizabeth, or Liz, a red-haired Scot who’s setting off to find her own husband and settle down on the land they were promised when back in Britain.
A journey that begins grounded in reality soon takes on a slightly more magical air, though. The quiet China begins to transform in the company of her new friend, picking up a new language and discovering that the world is far greater, and more fascinating, than she’d ever imagined. Almost inevitably the two women become closer, and soon the young Argentinean fervently wishes for the journey to continue indefinitely, hoping for nothing more than to stay with Liz forever. And yet, it’s here, with the reader expecting brutal reality to intervene at any moment, that China’s life takes an even greater turn for the flamboyant and wonderful.
Cabezón Cámara’s novel takes its inspiration from the classic Argentinian poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro, shifting the focus from Fierro to his (invented?) wife. China is actually just a name given to a woman, so our anonymous orphan decides to rename herself on the voyage of discovery she embarks upon. Her adventures are chonicled in three parts, with the first having her join Liz to roll merrily across the pampas, the second featuring a visit to a fort (where a certain José Hernández, the writer of the poem, greets them!) and the final chapter taking the women into native territory, where they’ll make new friends and reunite with old acquaintances.
Thsi is very much China’s (Josephine’s?) adventure, though, a Bildungsroman of the best kind, incorporating a broadening of horizons in many ways. As their wagon rolls merrily through the empty grasslands, her new friend teaches her about the world, surprising the younger woman with her tales of England and other countries, of trains, coal and machines, not to mention the fact that they’re living on a ball. The two women begin slowly, gradually learning more of each other’s language, and as China is given more words, she develops new ideas, and surprising, dazzling new thoughts emerge.
A rather different aspect of her education is her sexual awakening. Early on during their journey, Liz teases her with brief kisses and the symbolic cutting off of her plaits. Once they reach ‘civilisation’ at the fort, their relationship is consumated, yet this is certainly not the end of China’s education. As the pair drive further onwards, in the company of their faithful companions, there are even greater joys awaiting them. The third stage of the journey brings an Indian tribe and a very different way of living – and her new partner(s)…
An interesting feature of The Adventures of China Iron is the way the writer compares ways of living. While our heroine ends up visiting the peaceful, polyamorous natives, most of the novel brings stories of progress, industry and capitalism. In 1872, the year the novel is set, industrial Britain is the beating heart of the world, and the invasive tentacles of business are slowly making their way to Argentina:
Hernández was showing us the man of the future, which he embodied: I am paved roads, I am steam power, I am economy of the pampas, I am seed of civilisation and progress in this fertile and brutish land, untouched by the plough, only galloped over by savages who seem to have no sense of history other than as ghosts and thieves, a mere puff of smoke with no notion of anything except sowing vandalism left, right and centre… (p.107)
Initially, China is enthralled by these stories of a new world, but her feelings change as her journey continues. In truth, the pull of love proves to be far stronger than that of industry.
Cabezón Cámara’s novel has similarities with some of this year’s other IBP longlisters, such as the endless journeys (and sexual elements) of the grittier Red Dog, as well as the (unsuccessful) flight from oppression of The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. However, The Adventures of China Iron actually reminded me of two far older books. One is Voltaire’s Candide, a fun romp in which a small group of friends criss-cross the world in a hunt for the best of all possible worlds. However, the book most similar to China Iron’s adventures is perhaps Virginia Woolfe’s Orlando, both for its epic journeys and its gender-bending nature. I’m sure anyone who’s read both books will be able to see the resemblance 🙂
In what has been a rather dark longlist this year, The Adventures of China Iron is one of the lighter, more enjoyable offerings. There are many beautiful scenes as the small group crosses the pampas (the inclusion of China’s dog, Estreya, is a typically simple, but lovely, touch), and despite some violence, particularly in the middle section at the fort, China and her friends are lovers, not fighters. The book can be seen as a rejection of many ideals, saying no to the inevitable spread of capitalism, the traditional macho culture of the gauchos and the dominance of men over women. It’s also a work pervaded by satire and wry humour:
…a French gown, she explained to me, and she’d already told me about France, a country full of elegant people and artists and women of easy virtue, she also had to explain to me what easy virtue was and how only women can have it… (p.90)
The main example of this is the way Fierro, the symbol of some of these ideals, is held to ridicule. It’s fun, meta-fictional messing around, but I suspect that not all Argentineans would be happy with the way the writer has treated the hero of Hernández’s epic poem.
But let’s focus not on Fierro, but on the woman left behind, who unfolds once out of his shadow. As she rides off into the sunset with her new family, we sense a writer showing how things could have been different. More than a century on, we know that this is all a pipe-dream, yet who knows? Maybe, just maybe, there are still people like China out there, roaming the land far away from the monotony of modern life…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Possibly? While The Adventures of China Iron isn’t among my top picks from this year’s longlist, I had great fun reading it, and at present it’s another of those books hovering on the cusp of my personal shortlist. At times, it’s all a little too fantastical and over-the-top, what with its orgies in the middle of nowhere and focus on the subversion of gender roles, yet there’s no denying that it’s an entertaining read. Also, given that I took copious notes on this one, always finding another angle to consider the story from, there’s obviously more to it than a simple fan-fiction approach to a macho national epic. Definitely a possibility 😉
Why did it make the shortlist?
It’s very well written, it takes a very light approach to several heavy topics and it provides welcome respite from some of the more gruesome books on the longlist. Even prize judges need a little escapism at times, and this is probably the most successful of that genre of work on the longlist, better (in my opinion) than The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. I’m not sure it can win, but I’m sure Charco will be very happy with the recognition the book has received so far, anyway.
There are voices in the distance, so it’s time to clear our heads, quickly pack away the feathers and jewellery, and make our way to the airport ready for our next trip. The penultimate stop on our journey takes us back to Europe for a farmstay with a Dutch family. Sadly, though, we’ve come at a bad time, with a family tragedy having just occurred, so we’ll have to tread lightly – both to avoid upsetting anyone and to keep clear of the cow pats…