By Robin Munby
“I was definitely getting a taste for them, kisses from girls and gay gauchos” (132), says China, the eponymous narrator of The Adventures of China Iron, reflecting on the previous evening’s drunken orgy. Though set in the mid-19th century, you would be hard-pressed to find much common ground between the “erotics of politics” of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s work and that of the Latin American romances written at the time (6). Yet as Doris Sommer writes in Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America, “What better way to argue the polemic for civilization than to make desire the relentless motivation for a literary/political project?” (27). The Adventures of China Iron is a novel driven by desire, and in which desire acts as a catalyst for a vision of society, of how we might live together, albeit in a way those 19th-century authors might have found hard to comprehend.
Foundational Fictions describes the way the novels of the period took advantage of the “epistemological gaps” in history to inject their own narratives, and “project an ideal future” (7). Similarly, The Adventures of China Iron is also a novel that fills a gap. Not a gap in history, as such, but rather a literary lacuna in José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, the epic of gauchesque poetry at the forefront of the Argentine canon. China is the wife of the gaucho Martín Fierro, and she is left, half-naked, to fend for herself and her two children when he is conscripted into the army, meriting barely a mention for the duration of the poem. “I knew in an instant what I wanted for myself: something radiant” (1), writes China, at the start of the novel, as if sensing that her story has, until now, been consigned to oblivion. And so Cabezón Cámara sets out to write her radiant life.
From the outset, the eloquence of China’s narratorial voice stands in stark contrast to her lowly status. Contemplating her own origins, she writes that she was born “as if the violet-flowered pastures that softened the savagery of the pampa had somehow given birth to me,” while the rivers of the pampa flow “with a momentum inseparable from drowning” (2). The Adventures of China Iron is, as much as anything, the story of how China found this voice. Her voice, of course, is the product of a kind of collaboration, between China-narrator and Cabezón Cámara-author, so it feels appropriate for it to have been brought into English through another, albeit more straightforward collaboration, between translators Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. Such an idiosyncratic text as this could only benefit from the combined forces of two idiolects, two lives’ worth of English vocabulary, replete with “quagholes” (28), “varmints” (32) and “hugger-mugger” hovels (107).
China’s adventures begin with the arrival of Liz, a Scottish woman who comes to her village in search of her husband. She and China set off towards the interior of the country in search of Liz’s husband, a landowner who has been accidentally conscripted along with Fierro. China is fascinated by Liz, at first fetishizing her pale skin: “She washed herself, her fair freckly skin, ginger pubis, pink nipples, she looked like a heron, a ghost made flesh.” China’s own fair complexion even leads her to fantasize that they could be related. She is equally entranced by the contents of Liz’s Tardis-like wagon, loaded with the luxuries of imperial Britain: burgundy leather, silk petticoats, spices, tea and, of course, whisky. Like the wagon, China’s imagination is soon filled with images of empire:
This ball-shaped world came to life with Liz’s stories, half in Spanish, half in English. She started populating it with sacred cows, soft saris, hot Indian curry, African tribesman with painted faces, elephants with tusks the length of a small tree, huge eggs laid by ostriches … (19)
These images, and the imperialist gaze that comes with them – “Liz was sure that Great Britain was on top” (19) – will lose their lustre over the course of the novel, but the contact with another world and another language has expanded China’s horizons, her sense of the possible, irreversibly. “I began to see other perspectives” (24), she says, encapsulating her new outlook.
In the second part of the novel, China and Liz arrive at an estancia, an estate, owned, in one of many metafictional twists, by Hernández, the author of Martín Fierro. The estancia is a microcosm of his vision for the nation, one of ‘civilized’ morality, underpinned by brutal violence: “The Nation needed the land to be conquered, Hernández went on, explaining the bones that surrounded the estancia, those savages didn’t give it to us for free” (105). This pervasive violence, though, does not dull China and Liz’s feelings, and in passages such as the following, Cámara artfully conveys this paradox:
[W]e embraced, we loved each other all the more amidst the stench of death in the vicinity of the fort. Our love grew stronger as we realized our precarious situation, our fragility heightening our desire. (83)
At this point in the novel, a term used by Sommer in Foundational Fictions, “fleshing out history” (7), could scarcely be more apt. To flesh out, of course, is to expand upon, or to fill in, but flesh is also synonymous with both violence and desire. Both sides of this dichotomy are played out in the confines of the estancia, where China and Liz’s passion is realized in refreshingly humorous, matter-of-fact prose: “I’d woken up practically drowning with Liz’s cunt in my mouth and her rubbing herself against my face” (119).
China and Liz’s nocturnal sex is an antidote to the droning, tyrannical Hernández they are forced to endure each day. Indeed, throughout the novel, the queer offers itself as an escape from, and in opposition to, masculine, heteronormative power and violence. This, of course, is one of the key ways in which The Adventures of China Iron differs from the romance novels of the 19th century, where heterosexual desire was frequently used to reinforce patriotic/patriarchal ideals. In the latter, “a sensuous and resourceful woman is degenerative by definition” (23), but in The Adventures of China Iron sensuality, resourcefulness, tenderness and strength are qualities untethered from gender. Notions of gender are themselves subverted throughout. China, for example, frequently dresses as a man, while Rosario, a gaucho who joins them on their journey, is soon “Rosa” to China and “Rose” to Liz (56), and is compared at one point to “a mother duck” (40).
In the third part of the novel, China and Liz join an itinerant indigenous community, the Iñchiñ. Here, the queering of gender reaches its apex, as “men and women, and two-spirits” (174), those without a fixed gender, all coexist. This is the novel’s utopian climax, and Cabezón Cámara’s use of language is, accordingly, at its most expansive:
I fell asleep all flamingo, watching the sky bursting with stars and holding hands with Kauka and Liz, who was sucking all the milk from the Milky way through the ring on her finger. (155)
The language of this final section is further enriched by multilingualism. While China’s fascination with English was such a key feature of the first part of the book, now it is the vocabulary of the Iñchiñ that proliferates, primarily Mapuche and Guaraní. English, like China’s imperial fantasies, vanishes in the glow of her new life: “I’d thought I was becoming English, but no” (170). The indigenous words are an important part of the poetry of the original, and they blend beautifully with the translators’ lyrical English:
The whole world is a single animal, us and the ypyra leaves and the surubí catfish and the chajá screamer bird, and the giraffes and the praying mantis mamboretá and the passion flower mburucuyá … (182-3)
The translators do not signpost this multilingualism by over-explaining or, indeed, italicizing. Rather, the reader is expected to take difference in their stride. This seems to me a fitting approach for a novel whose narrator, after all, is so receptive to life in all its variety. As she notes when she and Liz first kiss: “it was revealed to me so naturally: why wouldn’t you be able to do that?” (33).
Reading The Adventures of China Iron feels like a joyous escape in our present moment, its “gay procession” (149), to borrow a phrase form China herself, all the more necessary now our horizons are so restricted. As I write, the streets outside my window are deserted and I, like many others round the world, am in quarantine. But even when our quarantine ends, the aftermath of this event, and the climate crisis that continues apace, are bound to force us to seek new ways of living. Back in 1991, Sommer wrote that novelists no longer took seriously “the interested imaginings of empty spaces” (27). Fortunately, Cabezón Cámara certainly does, filling the empty spaces in the life of China Iron, the empty spaces in our literary past and also, perhaps, some of the empty spaces in our common, queer, future.
Cabezón Cámara, Gabriela. The Adventures of China Iron. Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. Charco Press, 2019.
Robin Munby is a freelance translator from Liverpool, UK, based in Madrid.
Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1991.