The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is a marvellous and quite sexually-charged adventure across the pampas of Argentina, circa 1872.
This was the last nominee for the long-awaited 2020 International Booker Prize, held up by Covid-19. And it was worth waiting for.
China (pronunced Cheena) Iron is a South-American incarnation of Pippi Longstocking. A very adult version!
Her name is the Quechuan word for female, while 'Iron' refers to her husband Fierro; the latin derivative. Quechua are the indigenous people of South America. Their language originates from Peru.
"Queering the myth" (translator's note, p.192) of the Englishwoman's travelogue and the diaries of naturalists popular in the era, China Iron is a herstory, from the point of view of a young woman who has been married off early.
The characters are based on figures from Argentine literature - José Hernández’s epic poem; El Gaucho Martín Fierro.
After her gaucho husband is conscripted into the Argentine army, China escapes a life of servitude by running off, having an affair with Englishwoman, Liz.
Liz, adversely, is on a mission to find her own husband, who appears to have suffered the same fate.
The two, accompanied by China's dog, Estreya (Star), set off on a wagon journey crossing the Pampas; an area of South American grassland that spans over one million square kilometres.
Liz helps China to redefine herself in many ways, beginning with her name. China is not aware that she doesn't have a real name. She becomes China Josefine Estreya (after the dog), Iron - the name of her "no-good husband."
China's journey is an education in diversity: of Argentina's political struggle, colonisation, the indigenous natural landscape, the many cultures and languages that make up the continent, and of love itself.
There follow many funny encounters along the way, including a meeting with the Colonel responsible for building the Argentine nation; named after Hernandez.
China is driven to cut off her plaits and dress as a boy both for safety and as a protection from an encounter with her husband. In Quechuan, someone leading this existence is known as a 'two-spirit'.
Cámara's descriptive language is beautiful; she brings the pampas to life with its unique creatures, seasons, and descriptions of light enough to make an artist jealous.
The grass was waving as we set off and the pampa was a two-coloured sea: when the stalks surrendered to the wind the pampa whitened, frothing like foam; when they swayed back it was green and the different shades of grass sparkled, looking like young shoots though it was too late in the year for that. Everything was returning to the earth now, going from light green, yellow, gold, and ochre to brown, and then pitching over. ...Even the poor oxen felt refreshed, lowering their curly eyelashes from the love they felt when we yoked them to the wagon (p.141).
A kind of Thelma and Louise meets Herland, China Iron has great story elements in spades: adventure, humour, the brutality of colonisation and war and the heat of a passionate affair.
Camara tops it off with an epic poem by 'Fierro'.
Will Liz find her husband? Will China avoid hers? And how will the journey change them both?
From Argentina, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara rewrites history from a feminist, non-binary and critically postcolonial perspective. Written in Spanish, China Iron has been translated into English by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh.
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