In Shaping Her Own Story, She Upends a National Epic

By Gabriela Cabezón Cámara

“The Adventures of China Iron” begins with a moment of lyricism that isn’t any less powerful for being directed at a dog. A young pup bounds over the dusty earth, shining with “a light undimmed by the dingy sadness of a poverty that was,” fundamentally, “a lack of ideas.” The 14-year-old narrator of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s novel initially answers only to La China, a Quechua word meaning, loosely,someone’s woman.” As for the dog, she names him Star.

A towheaded orphan, the narrator is raised by a domineering woman whose husband loses La China in a card game to the drunken gaucho Martín Fierro. When Fierro is conscripted to serve at the frontier, La China leaves the children she bore him and heads for freedom, dog at her side. She winds up on the frontier-bound wagon of a redheaded Scotswoman, Liz, who is out to rescue her own conscripted husband (whom she actually likes). It’s Liz who first gives La China the dignity of a name, La China Josefina Fierro: China Josephine Iron.

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, “China Iron” showcases a remarkably fresh vision of life on the 19th-century pampas. “The earth shook itself up, sweeping skywards in spirals,” Cabezón Cámara writes. In other words: a stampede. During a flood, we see cows somersaulting in a river that moves “with a momentum inseparable from drowning.” But from its first line the novel is breathtakingly preoccupied with light, the way it animates a beautiful and cannibalistic landscape:

“It became dazzling with the rains, reawakened. … No longer flat, it heaved with grain, tents, Indians on the move, white women escaping from captivity, horses swimming with their gaucho riders still astride, while all around the dorado fish darted like lightning into the depths. … And in each fragment of that river that was devouring its own banks, a bit of sky was reflected.”

It’s easy to categorize “China Iron” at first as magical realism, but it’s something else entirely, a historical novel that reminds us, in Cabezón Cámara’s entrancing poetry, how magical and frankly unpleasant it is to live through history. The book is also a masterly subversion of Argentine national identity. Josephine’s good-for-nothing husband is the romantic renegade of José Hernández’s 1872 poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro,” a cornerstone of Argentine literature. Fierro’s legendary exploits are confined in “China Iron” to a few drunken indiscretions, while his nameless wife, who takes up all of four words in the original epic (su china, “his woman,” she’s called), becomes the hero.

The blinding light at the novel’s start is enlightenment, the beginning of Josephine’s mastering of her own story. “I had gone from the raw to the cooked,” she observes, amused: from beaten-down poverty to lace-up leather boots and silk petticoats. As she and Liz navigate a wilderness that smells like mint and thistles, the landscape “pearled with bones” and traced by ñandús, cuys, vizcachas and scavenging chimangos, Liz teaches her about the alphabet and “London’s smoky sprawl,” as well as the tribesmen, hot curry and “curly-roofed pagodas” on the edges of the British Empire.

Liz tells her, too, about Frankenstein — “that gaucho made of dead men and lightning,” as Rosario, a young runaway who joins their party, puts it — and Josephine isn’t so different, stung to life with an electricity that’s partly education, partly love. When Liz kisses her, her British mouth tastes “spicy, flowery,” like curry and tea. “I felt the light inside me,” Josephine considers, “felt I was little more than a restless mass of flashes and sparks. Quite possibly I was right about that.”

The translation by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh is sure-footed, Cabezón Cámara’s lush prose spilling out without hesitation. The only hiccup, arguably, is the English title, which primes us for a story about East Asian metallurgy. This is a novel about a different kind of alchemy — the transformation of language, of character, of any easy sense of national history. No forge required.

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