“This subversive retelling of Argentina’s foundational gaucho epic Martín Fierro is a celebration of the colour and movement of the living world, the open road, love and sex, and the dream of lasting freedom. With humour and sophistication, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara has created a joyful, hallucinatory novel that is also an incisive critique of national myths.”
The Adventures of China Iron
By Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre
Rating: 9.8 – literary / historical fiction
I read the Kindle version because at Audible it’s only available in Spanish. It was published in 2017 (Latin), 2019 (UK), and 2020 (US)
The cover shows a a pair of upside-down braids and as China learns about the world and where she is in it, she wonders why she’s not walking upside-down but then, to the reader, it might seem as though a world has been flipped.
First off if you’ve wanted to venture into the world of GLBTQ lit but don’t even like romance then this may be the book for you. I do NOT like anything more than smacking of romance and there is some of that I can tolerate – like if the romance part is distinctly secondary. This might be a romance – I suppose it depends on how you read it.
The Adventures of China Iron is a takeoff of the 18th century epic *poem,* “Martín Fierro” by José Hernández – and I have to add that it took way off from the Hernandez book which is a gaucho classic, a nation-builder and a part of the national myth/heritage of Argentina.
“Martín Fierro” translated into English is at
and the Introduction there was written by the translators in 1967 and 2007. It gives tremendous insight as well as some incredible paintings.
And on to the story – China (Cheena) Iron (sp. Ferro) our protag-onist and heroine is about 14 years old as the story opens and is running away from her husband and 2 children. China, a light skinned and blonde-haired young woman was brought up as a slave to a black couple and when the husband died China was sold her off to a gaucho who married her. He is so brutal that one day she leaves him and their two children for far-off places – any far-off places.
Before long China finds her first companion she names, Estreya (star). He’s a puppy. Then she meets Elizabeth (or Liz or Lizabeth or whatever), a beautiful woman from Victorian Scotland who is looking for her own husband who was conscripted into the military.
Liz has a well-equipped covered wagon and two oxen pulling it so China and Estreya fit nicely. And they drink tea and Liz tells CHina about the world.
Then along comes Rosario and it’s a four-some of sorts. They head across the pampas and the desert for Las Hortencias, a military fort on the frontier.
There have been so many books this year which have been so full of violence and negativity they’ve been horrible to read. So I was hesitant about The Adventures of China Iron even if it was on the Booker Prize International Short List. And it is violent, but it’s totally different. It’s not about the violence. The violence is an interlude.
At only 120 pages this amazingly well-translated novel is barely a novella. And I do so love good translated lit – like what’s usually onj the Booker International Prize Lists. So the Kindle sample was great – lovely writing about good stuff and I gave it a try. Sad to say it’s not available in Audio so I got it in Kindle format only.
Part 1 is magical as the story starts out – mostly light and fun reading. “But birds had appeared: filling the sky with sound, bathing noisily in the pools of water, as if they were born from water, as if their life was in waiting until they got wet, as if somehow their lives were part of the cycle of seeds.” – Page 38 / Kindle
Part 2 takes place at Las Hortencias, a military fort on the frontier of Argentina, and is also magical but gets harsher about a lot of things as adventure turns to thriller (of sorts). But this is what Martin Fierro is about – gaucho outlaws, “good-for-nothing larvae because they were trapped on the estancias with no schooling, and because the city folk exploited the countryside and were even greater parasites then the gauchos themselves.” (Adventures of China Iron – pg 64) Hernandez’s book turned that sentiment about gauchos into their brave national heroes.
Part 3 is the most magical and gets lovely again, “Into the summertime I sank. Into the berries bursting red and replete from the bushes. Into the mushrooms growing in the shade of the trees. Into every single tree I sank.”
The Translator’s Note is a very fine piece of explanation – make sure to read it.
Poetry is extremely difficult to translate anyway – so the translation of bits of Martin Fierro within the narrative is exciting and was a lovely surprise.
I Googled a LOT while reading this book – everything from Martin Fierro to “Iñchiñ” a tribal word. It took me some time to even figure out when all this action took place! So go and Google what you find and see what more you find. 🙂
And enjoy if you figure this sounds like something you’d like – it does have a lot of sex and magic in it. In places it’s very difficult to figure out what’s going on. There are a lot of untranslated/ untranslatable words in it. Keep going – it clears up. I really want to read this again – really – so I can pay more attention to the prose narrative without being distracted by wanting to know what’s going to happen.