A Gaucho Novel for the Twenty-First Century
- By Manuela Borzone
Back in February, the International Booker Prize, which recognizes the best novel translated into English published in the UK or Ireland, announced its longlist of novels competing for this year’s award. The list included The Adventures of China Iron, written by the Argentinian Gabriela Cabezón Cámara in 2016 and translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. In April, as the world came to a grinding halt, The Adventures made it onto the shortlist. Like many other events this year, the announcement of the winner, which usually takes place in May, has been postponed for the time being — terrible for the hopeful author and translators but excellent for me, as it gives me a chance to review the novel in more detail.
The Adventures of China Iron is Cabezón Cámara’s third novel to be translated into English and published by Charco Press. Described by Argentinian journalists as a “queer road movie,” the novel takes place sometime between 1872 and 1876 and is the personal narration of China Josephine Star Iron, or China Iron for short. China is a young orphan who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after spending most of her childhood as a servant and, later, getting married against her will. Allied with Liz, a Scottish traveler, a young man named Rosa, and Estreya, her dog, China traverses the Pampas plains, a movement through space that is emotional and utopian as well as physical. As the group searches for a place to live happily and peacefully, China builds her own family, outside the expectations of the newly established liberal state.
Infused with multilingual expressions and passages in English, Guaraní, and Mapuche, the novel blends narratives of frontier life, nature exploration, and scientific discovery — rich genres in Argentina — with a contemporary critique of the presumed universality of the nineteenth-century ideas of nation and national literature. Readers will marvel at how the translators managed to turn the historic, cultural, literary, and linguistic challenges presented by the novel into timely opportunities for dialogue. In particular, the underside of British scientific discourse is revealed through the interactions among characters enamored with, yet also distrustful of the settler-colonial project.
Prior to the Adventures, China existed only as an obscure and voiceless character in one of the classic adventure narratives from the Argentinian literary canon. China’s last name, Iron, translates to “fierro” in Spanish. And China Fierro is the wife of Argentina’s most famous literary outlaw: the gaucho Martín Fierro, the main character in the long narrative poem Martín Fierro, written by José Hernández between 1872 and 1876. In the years since the poem’s publication, Martín Fierro’s adventures and voice have become an iconic symbol of national identity in the genre of gauchesca literature. Other mythical gaucho narratives, such as Juan Moreira (1879) by Eduardo Gutiérrez and Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by Ricardo Güiraldes, built on Martín Fierro’s foundation, amplifying the gaucho archetype and canonizing frontier tropes for generations of Argentinian readers. Despite the fictional and literary fame of Martín Fierro, in her husband's poem, China only appears in a handful of times. In fact, the word “china” was commonly used to refer to all gaucho and indigenous women in nineteenth-century Argentina, thereby erasing the individuality and inner lives of historical women as well as their fictional counterparts. The Adventures of China Iron builds on this foundational fiction and, in doing so, creates space for other voices within the fabric of Argentinian literature: while Martín Fierro imagined the Argentinian liberal state in the late-nineteenth century, China Iron reimagines Martín Fierro’s nineteenth-century moment, offering an alternative to contemporary readers.
China’s adventures begin after her husband has been conscripted to the frontier territories to fight against indigenous populations. Divided into three parts, the novel loosely follows the structure of Martín Fierro. In the first part, “The Pampas” [el desierto], China begins to learn about and to take space in the world, wrestling with the fact that she has no name. Encouraging her to develop her own sense of self and voice, Liz prompts China to take on a name of her own: “How would you like to be called Josefina?” Liz asks, a nod to the late gauchesca critic Josefina Ludmer, as Cabezón Cámara has explained in various interviews. No longer a voiceless and nameless character, she becomes China Josephine Star Iron: retaining the last name of her “no good husband,” paying homage to Ludmer’s work, and adding her dog Estreya’s name in the mix too (14).
The second part, “The Fort” [el fortín], introduces José Hernández and Martín Fierro as characters, complicating the positive reception of the author and his work in Argentinian letters and culture. The final part of the novel, “Indian Territory” [tierra adentro], takes place beyond the frontier. Here China, her friends, Martín Fierro, and their children, live harmoniously in nature among the Iñchiñ, an indigenous group named after the Mapuche term for ‘we.’ The final section proposes a utopian vision of community unbound from the individual, private, capitalist, heteronormative dominant narrative that silenced China in the first place.
Partaking in common tropes found in the gauchesca genre as it developed throughout the twentieth century, Cabezón Cámara’s Adventures joins a wealth of narratives, poems, and films that have directly or indirectly wrestled with the long shadow of Martín Fierro over Argentinian letters. Jorge Luis Borges, Arturo Jauretche, and César Aira all wrote in and against gauchesca at some point in their careers. In the early 1970s, Francisco “Pino” Solanas, one of the founders of the Cine Liberación [liberation cinema] movement in Argentina, directed Los hijos de Fierro [Fierro’s Sons], while Martín Kohan was the first author to queer Martín Fierro in the short story “El amor” [The Love] (2011).
Yet despite the popularity and importance of the genre in Argentinian culture, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Adventures of China Iron is the first gauchesca novel written by a woman and that centers the narrative voice and experiences of a female character. With her novel, Cabezón Cámara does for Martín Fierro and its long procession of dutiful sons what Borges tried and largely failed to accomplish: to unseat poet and poem from its privileged space in Argentinian letters. The success of the English translation further confirms that the novel can transcend the all borders and boundaries, including linguistic and national ones, and offer a wonderful reading experience, filled with light, joy, discovery, friendship, and love.
The winner of the International Booker Prize will be announced on August 26.
Manuela Borzone has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature from UMass Amherst, where she also teaches a variety of courses. She writes about gauchos and Argentinian literature, and she enjoys swimming, biking, and hiking when the weather is nice.