Gabriela Cabezón Cámara « The Adventures of China Iron »

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
“The Adventures of China Iron”: In order of reading book number 3.

In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


Many said there was no need to spare the blood of gauchos, but he did spare it: he considered the gauchos every bit a part of the estancia as any one of the cows and he wouldn’t let a single one die without good reason.


Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s China Iron (thanks to the translators notes) is a story very loosely based on the 19th century balad, “La Vuelta de Martín Fierro” about life as a Gaucho on the Argentinian Pampas, except that Cámara bases this story around Fierro’s wife, unnamed in the balad.

A female gaucho, a “gaucha” is know as a china, and as the story begins Fierro, as in the balad, wins china from El Negro in a card game and fathers her two children before her fourteenth birthday, Fierro kills El Negro “because he can” before the army catches up with him:


When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laughingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain.


His wife just ups and leaves on a wagon with Liz, Oscar’s wife, on a 19th century Pampas road movie, a voyage of discovery of herself and the country she lives in. When Liz asks her her name, she realises that she doesn’t have one, people have only ever called her china like all the other women, and so she begins by naming herself, keeping the China and using the English translation of her husbands name, Iron.

They leave the Pampas and cross the dessert following an old Indian, well trodden, earth path as she and Liz get to know each other, China falling in love with Liz during torrid nights in the wagon, and as China gains an outsider’s view of Gauchos:


Liz – who believed in work more than in God the Father – was right about gauchos being parasites on cows and horses. She was right about my people’s life of meat and water; we didn’t grow squashes or beans, we didn’t weave or fish, we barely hunted, didn’t use any wood other than fallen branches, and then only to make fire.


In the second part of the trip, China discovers the creation of the “New Argentina” as they stop over at José Hernández’s Hacienda, the José Hernández that wrote the balad. She sees the cruelty of the land owners to the Gouchos, using the army to control them, with his view of them illustrated in the opening quote. A normal punishment was to be staked out in the sun using four stakes for several days. But if the Gauchos were second class citizens they were better treated than the Indians:


I’ve already told you, Liz: Argentina needs that land in order to progress. And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentines. We all need the Indians.


China and Liz escape to Indian country where they meet up with the “real” balad writer Martín Fierro who as in the original balad had run of with a deserter, Cruz, but not for quite the same reasons as imagined by Cámara in this version of the poem, translated marvellously in A B C C C B by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh:


Like Jesus rising from the tomb
In two days I was well:
The third day dawned, he kissed my lips
His salt-sweet mouth mine did eclipse
He mounted me, he held my hips
To heaven I came from hell.

The sun shone on my arse that hour.
My spurs I cast away,
A moment more I couldn’t wait
To suck him dry and with him sate
My lust for him, then lie prostrate;
Such freedom I knew that day.

To you in words I can’t explain
The pleasure that I felt
To have his prick come into me
In paradise I seemed to be
Through flesh was God revealed to me
And at his feet I knelt.


This was a fun story of awakening in a cruel world (slavery, the indusrial revolution and the creating of Argentina), well worth its place on the Booker International shortlist.

First Published in Spanish as “Las aventuras de la China Iron” in 2017, in Argentina by Penguin Random House Group.
Translated into english by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh and published as “The Advetures of China Iron” by Charco Press in 2019

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