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

Manuel Vilas ‘Ordesa’


The spirits are there now. My father is the one that comes the most often, he lies down beside me and touches my hand.
He’s there, carbonised.
“My son, why did you have me burned?”
Me too, in the near future, I will be a dead father and I will be burnt. For Valdi and Bra I will be deceased too…..
I believe in the dead because they have loved me so much more than today’s living.***


The writer, Manuel Vilas, grieving at the losses of his mother and father wrote this multi-award winning book about his life and his grief. This is a bitter-sweet book but you may have to look for the sweet. Vilas gives each character in the book the name of a musician, first of all the living, his sons Valdi and Bra (Vivaldi and Brahms). Vilas is divorced and lives alone with a spare room for his sons who come to see him for the minimum time possible and who never use his spare room, who have no idea of his grief, he is haunted by his dead parents having been unable to afford a burial plot as illustrated in the opening quote.

Vilas takes us through his upbringing in Spain under Franco and the relative poverty of this era and slowly he re-visits all of the dead musicians of his life, everybody he knew from his childhood is dead, a period that eventually arrives for most of us, such as here with Monteverdi:


My mother’s brother is dead, my uncle Alberto Vidal passed away on the 11th march 2015 at the age of seventy three.
In this book I’ve refered to Alberto as Monteverdi….
we burried him there in Ponzano. I can’t go there, obviously. I never go to a burial. So I don’t know what his tomb or his alcove is like. I don’t know if there are flowers. I don’t know anything.***


Such is grief that there is no hope, this is a period of life which Vidal must live through. Much like his book for the reader! This book was a difficult read, easing up to something like peace towards the end.

First Published in Spanish as “Ordesa” in 2018 by Penguin Random House
Translated into french by Isabelle Gugnon and published as “Ordesa” by Éditions du Seuil in 2019
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Les esprits sont arrivés. Mon père est celui qui vient le plus fréquemment, il se couche à mes côtés et me touche la main.
Il est là, carbonisé.
“Mon fils, pourquoi m’as-tu fait brûler?”
Moi aussi, dans peu de temps, je serai un père mort et on me fera brûler. Valdi et Bra me considéreront comme un défunt….
Je crois aux morts car ils m’ont beaucoup plus aimé que les vivants d’aujourd’hui.

Le frère de ma mère morte, mon oncle Alberto Vidal s’éteint le 11 mars 2015 à l’âge de soixante-treize ans.
Dans ce livre j’ai désigné Alberto sous le nom de Monteverdi…
on l’a enterré là, à Ponzano. Je ne peux pas y aller, bien evidemment. Je ne vais à aucun enterrement; j’ai passé ma vie à ça: éviter les obsèques. Je ne sais donc pas comment est sa tombe ou sa niche. je ne sais pas s’il y aura des fleurs. Je ne sais rien.

Jonathan Coe ‘Middle England’


‘She couldn’t stand politicians,’ Colin said, bringing some subterranean train of thought to the surface, and not needing to specify who he meant by ‘she’. He spoke in a low voice, thick with regret and repressed emotion. ‘Thought they were all as bad as each other. All on the fiddle, every one of them. Fiddling their expenses, not declaring their interests, holding down half a dozen jobs on the side …’ Benjamin nodded, while remembering that in fact it was Colin himself, not his late wife, who was obsessed with the venality of politicians.


Jonathan Coe has chosen the Trotter Family and their Birmingham base from his previous books, The Rotters Club and The Closed Circle, as the medium to study Pre and early Post Brexit Britain, the latent differences between the Leavers and the Remainers, that were waiting to be cleaved open. The opening quote from Colin Trotter, Benjamin Trotters father, maybe in his eighties, is of course something you can hear in any democracy in the world, squeaky clean is rare and of course this sort of resentment is like dry tinder.

Basically the fifty somethings in this book were not too interested or informed, typified by Benjamin who was too interested in his own navel and too timid to even have an opinion or his friend Doug, a freelance journalist who writes articles under severe time pressure, even his 16 year old daughter Coriander can see he is out of touch with what is happening in the country. But amongst all of the strands in this book, The Brexit story and its strife is carried by Sophie Trotter, Benjamin’s niece, in her early thirties and the man she chooses to marry, Ian who she meets on a driving training course after being caught speeding. This was never going to be a straightforward marriage. After Ian is injured in the Birmingham riots and Sophie drives his mother to the hospital, the tooothpaste is let out of the tube. Yes there is rascism, and resentment but maybe only that:


“Where will it end Sophie where will it all end this dreadful business end”?
Of course Sophie knew what she meant by this dreadful business but it was the middle of a quiet Saturday afternoon in august they were driving along the A435 not far from the Wivel roundabout and the sun shone placidly on the roofs of cars, the traffic signs, the petrol stations, the hedgerows, the pubs, the garden centres, the convenience stores, all the familiar landmarks of modern England. It was hard at that moment to see the world as a dreadful place or a very inspiring one for that matter, she was about to formulate some bland response, oh you know, life goes on , these things blow over after a while, when Helena added
“He was quite tight you know rivers of blood, he was the only one brave enough to say it”.
Sophie froze when she heard these words and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now, here it was after all the subject that wouldn’t, couldn’t be discussed the subject that provided people more than any other, mortified people more than any other, because to bring it up was to strip off your own clothes, and tear off the other persons clothes and to be forced to stare at each other naked, unprotected with no way of averting your eyes any reply she made to Helena at this moment, any reply that showed her own differing views would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth that sophie and everyone like her, and Helena and everyone like her, might be living cheek by jowl in the same country but they also lived in different universes and these universies were separated by a wall infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even perhaps those most English of all qualities shame and embarrassment. Impossible to face this, the only practical thing to do was to ignore it, but for how long was that practical in fact?


Both Sophie and Ian suffer career setbacks, Ian, an alpha male loses out on a promotion to a woman, an Asian woman and he fosters resentment, a feeling of having had something that should have been his taken away by the PC crowd. Sophie is called out on Twitter by Coriander for something seemingly innocent telling a transgender student who had dithered on an essay between two choices, that she couldn’t make her mind up. Sophie was suspended pending an investigation, as Ian says Guilty until proven innocent. Ian and his mother cannot understand that Sophie is not bitter about this. And the added pressure of The Brexit debate tears their marriage apart, or was it always going to end this way:


Their relationship councillor Lorna told them that many of the couples she was seeing at the moment had mentioned Brexit as a key factor in their growing estrangement. Now I usually start by asking each of you the same question. Sophie, why are you so angry that Ian voted leave and Ian why are you so angry that Sophie voted remain? Sophie had thought for a long time before answering, I suppose because it makes me think that as a person he’s not as open as I thought he was, that his basic model for a relationship comes down to antagonism and competition not cooperation. Lorna had nodded and turned to Ian who said it makes me think that she’s very naive that she lives in a bubble and can’t see how other people around her might have a different opinion to hers and this gives a certain attitude an attitude of moral superiority. To which Lorna had said, what’s interesting about both those answers is that neither of you mentioned politics.


A long and relatively verbiose book, but you know what you’re getting when you buy a Coe. This book is maybe the analysis needed to begin the slow process of being able to live together, having different opinions and who knows, respecting opposite points of view. But don’t hold your breath.

First Published in English as “Middle England” in 2019 by Penguin Books Ltd.

Paolo Giordano ‘The Human Body’

—In the years following the mission, each of the guys set out to make his life unrecognizable, until the memories of that other life, that earlier existence,img_1064 were bathed in a false, artificial light and they themselves became convinced that none of what took place had actually happened, or at least not to them.

Paolo Giordano’s The Human Body was written using his experience as an embedded journalist in an Italian peace mission in Afghanistan. The title loses its double meaning in the translation being both a body and a military unit in the original Italian, this story investigates a military unit by following a number of individuals through the senselessness and boredom of their mission, their ill preparedness for the intense stress caused by a mission outside of their base that goes terribly wrong and how this incident transforms them, illustrated by the opening quote.

In particular we meet the squad leader René, a career soldier respected by his men and who when he is not on mission is a Gigolo with a string of middle aged paying customers, the loud mouthed Cederna and his young acolyte, the “virgin” Ietri, as well as Mitrano who is bullied by Cederna, Zampieri the only woman in the unit who has continually to prove herself and Torsu, who from the mission outset has health problems. When they arrive in Afghanistan they are joined by Egitto the garrison Doctor has decided to stay on for another mission, Paolo Giordano talks us through everyday bored military life as here in a discussion between Cederna and Ietri

—The embarrassing truth is that Ietri has never been with a woman, not in the sense that he considers complete. No one in the platoon knows this and it would be a disaster if they were to find out. The only one who knows is Cederna; he told him about it himself one evening at the pub when they were both smashed and in the mood for confiding. “Complete? You mean to say you’ve never fucked?” “Well, not . . . fully.” “A goddamn little virgin! Hey, I have a new name for you: verginella…. Listen up now—it’s important. The tool down there is like a rifle. A 5.56, with a metal stock and laser sighting.” Cederna shoulders an invisible weapon and aims it at his friend. “If you don’t remember to oil the barrel from time to time, it will end up jamming.” Ietri looks down at his mug of beer. He takes too big a swig, begins to cough. Jammed. He’s a guy who’s jammed. “Even Mitrano manages to shoot his wad every now and then,” Cederna says. “He pays.”

For their peacekeeping mission they are stationed in an inhospitable landscape, their base camp is on the top of a hill, isolated from the country they are there to help in order to provide its own safety:

—The truth is, as in all of the operations since the start of the conflict, the clearing of the area has only been partial, the secure zone extends for a radius of 2km around the base, some dangerous pockets of guérillas remain within this zone and outside of the zone it’s hell…***

After several moral sapping isolated months on the hill top, peacekeeping, they are forced to leave their base in convoy to escort some Afghan  lorry drivers who have had their lorries taken from them through the inhospitable zone which surrounds their hill. Paolo Giordano conveys to us just how easy a target they actually are, up to and including the moments of the tragedy.

A study of futility, the smallness of our individual lives and the impossibility of the peacekeeping mission in this inhospitable territory.

First Published in Italian as “Il corpo umamo” in 2012 by Arnoldo Mondadori.
Translated into French by Nathalie Bauer as ‘Le corps humain’ and published by Seuil in 2013
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel as “The Human body”and published by Viking Penguin in 2014
*** My translation

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

Giovanni Arpino ‘Scent of a woman’

‘Love isn’t polenta. Get married and then you’ll be happy. Better to get married than hang yourself,’ he continued mockingly. image‘You’re just like my cousin the aunt: she lives on proverbs. But she’s seventy years old. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’

As Fausto says to Ciccio in this, ‘Scent of a Woman’ by Giovanni Arpino one of my Italian lit targets for 2016.

Vincenzo and Fausto have been blinded whilst demining an explosive device during an army exercise.

The narrator, a soldier on leave arrives at Fausto’s cousin’s house, sent by his commanding officer in the barracks, to accompany Fausto, who lives hidden away in the countryside near Turin, on a trip to Naples. Fausto is a ‘gentleman’, as people used to be in the mid 1900’s, his cousin says

‘Until the day of the accident I didn’t know him very well. He was always roaming around the world, boarding school, academy, the military.’

From the outset we learn that Fausto is overbearing and calls all of his assistants Ciccio, in an attempt to dominate them. An example is the episode where Fausto teaches Ciccio to walk with himself, a blind person, disciplining him with a cane. The two of them embark on their rail trip to Naples, via Rome as the narrator, Ciccio,  slowly gets to know Fausto, but can you really get to know Fausto, as he says to Ciccio:

‘You’re not a friend,’ he went on. ‘You don’t speak, you don’t sing, you don’t wag your tail.’

Is Fausto living normally, in control of his life, or just getting by from day to day, we see him take control when organising a suit for Ciccio who was still in his army uniform or when visiting his cousin, a priest, in Rome and sensing his unease, his doubts. But then he slowly spirals into extreme drunkeness and pushes Ciccio to look for women criticising with some irony the changes in modern Italy:

What a country this is! Completely laughable. Nothing works, so what do they come up with? Shutting down the bordellos. The country’s only real salutary institution.’

The story then moves into the true subject matter as they arrive in Naples and Fausto is reunited with Vincenzo, but apart from their accident these two seem to have nothing in common, as Young Sara who is in love with Fausto says to Ciccio

‘Oh, poor Vincenzo doesn’t count.’ She dismissed him with a grimace. ‘Haven’t you seen how he is, a nothing, a nobody? A good man, a saint, certainly, but what does it take for him to be one?’
‘They don’t even seem like friends.’
She laughed, a sharp burst, then said harshly, ‘Nobody can be his friend.’
‘I heard them talking, out on the terrace. I couldn’t understand. It sounded like some kind of pact.’

The pact: but events don’t go ahead as planned, and Sara’s devotion to Fausto plays out to the end. If you want to know how, read the book!

First Published in Italian as”Il Buio e il Miele” by La Scala in 1969
Translated into English by Anne Milano Appel and published as “Scent of a Woman” by Penguin in 2012

Katherine Pancol ‘The Yellow Eyes Of Crocodiles’

I decided this time to check out a French best selling author ‘Katherine Pancol‘ . Colourful books on female themes I thought, so why not give my feminine side a chance to shine through!image Tell me more