The Adventures of China Iron is the daring, playful story of a young woman in pursuit of a freer life. The fourth novel by the Buenos Aires-based author Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, first published in Spanish in 2017 and now translated into English by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. It reinvents José Hernández’s 1872 epic poem El Gaucho Martín Fierro by putting Fierro’s wife, who is merely a footnote in the original, at the centre. And what a joy it is to see the pampas of rural Argentina through her wide eyes.
China Iron is little more than a child when we meet her. She seeks to escape a life of deep-rooted violence against women. An orphan made to work as a slave, by the age of 14 she has given birth to two boys, having been forced to marry her “brute of a husband” when she was “a mere slip of a girl”.
She escapes her remote gaucho encampment with a Scottish adventurer, Liz, in whose wagon the unlikely pair set out. When they exchange names on their first meeting, Liz won’t accept “La China”: “Liz told me that where I was from, all women were called chinas but they each had their own name as well. Not me.” The label she has carried all her life bears evidence to her assumed worthlessness. But the pain doesn’t last long: China, full of the wonder only a teenager inhabits so purely, is quickly enraptured by her new life on the road.
Cámara’s narration of China’s life story is in parts akin to the most fanciful episodes of Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy, where questions of narrative reliability run rampage. “It’s difficult to know what you remember, is it what actually happened? Or is it the story that you’ve told and retold and polished like a gemstone over the course of years, like something that has lustre but is as lifeless as a stone?” asks China. We can’t know to which type her storytelling adheres, though it certainly does not lack vitality. It is conversational (“I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet, but…”) and beautifully wrought. China describes grass “waving as we set off and the pampa was a two-coloured sea”; there is water “which didn’t know what colour to be amid all the commotion”. Her willing curiosity sets the novel alight. “I tried looking from lots of different angles,” she writes. A page later: “And I began to see other perspectives.”
These perspectives allow China to reckon with acts of colonisation on her homeland. “I’d never thought about it till then,” she admits. She sees the remains of indigenous people pushed off their land and encounters a colonel of European descent, whose claim over Argentine soil is limitless: “I am seed of civilisation and progress in this fertile and brutish land, untouched by the plough, only galloped over by savages.” Even Liz, whom China adores, is part of the problem. She left Scotland “to make her fortune in the far-off pampas. She didn’t know much about them, just that they were almost virgin territory, there for the taking.” The brutal devastation of “nation-building” is vividly apparent when seen through the eyes of someone so young.
Cámara is at her best when depicting injustice through startlingly ordinary means, such as the towels with which China and Liz dry themselves. They came from Lancashire mills, and before that “from the Mississippi Delta and from the cracks of the whip on the backs of black people in the United States”. China’s realisation ends with a heartbreaking admittance of naivety, which, in turn, proves her innate wisdom: “Almost everything that I touched knew more about the world than I did.”
It is no spoiler to say that China does find freedom, for the means by which she gets there and the twists, turns and hallucinogens that pin the tale together are wonderfully unexpected. The novel’s conclusion feels mythical because of the neatness with which the characters come together, though what is not so easily contained is the verve with which they chase liberation. For China, her new life feels like a return to nature: “Just as it was in the beginning we all loved each other without shame.”
The Adventures of China Iron
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
Charco Press, 190pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak