The Adventures of China Iron

The Adventures of China Iron


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Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020

1872. The pampas of Argentina. China is a young woman eking out an existence in a remote gaucho encampment. After her no-good husband is conscripted into the army, China bolts for freedom, setting off on a wagon journey through the pampas in the company of her new-found friend Liz, a settler from Scotland. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to the ruthless violence involved in nation-building.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781916465664
Publisher: Charco Press
Publication date: 10/13/2020
Pages: 188
Sales rank: 159,221
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x (d)

About the Author

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara was born in Buenos Aires in 1968. Her debut novel La virgen cabeza (published in English as Slum Virgin by Charco Press, 2017) was followed by Romance de la negra rubia (Romance of the Black Blonde, 2014) as well as by two collections of short stories. In 2011 she published the novella Le viste la cara a Dios (You’ve Seen God’s Face), later republished as a graphic novel, Beya (Biutiful), illustrated by Iñaki Echeverría. Beya was awarded the Argentine Senate’s Alfredo Palacios Prize and was recognised by the Buenos Aires City Council and the Congress of Buenos Aires Province for its social and cultural significance as well as for its contribution in the fight against human trafficking. During 2013, she was writer-in-residence at UC Berkeley, and in 2019 she was part of the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin.

Fiona Mackintosh is a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Literature at the University of Edinburgh with research interests in gender studies, comparative literature and literary translation. Fiona specialises in Argentinian fiction and poetry and has published extensively on Alejandra Pizarnik and Silvina Ocampo in particular, as well as on contemporary authors. She has translated Luisa Valenzuela’s The Other Book for Bomb magazine and selected poems by Esteban Peicovich for In Other Words. She is currently writing a book on the novels of Claudia Piñeiro.

Iona Macintyre is a Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Iona’s teaching and research has focused on nineteenth-century Spanish American history and culture. Within this area she works primarily on Argentina, history of the book, translation studies, gender studies and transatlantic relations. She has also published on the contemporary fiction of Jorge Accame.

Read an Excerpt

It was the brightness of the light. The young pup, radiating life, was scampering excitedly between the dusty sore paws of the few dogs left round there. Poverty yields cracked skin. It carves and slowly scrapes away at its young, and leaves them to fend for themselves in all weathers. It makes skin dry, leathery, and scarred, and forces its offspring into unwonted shapes. But not yet the pup: it radiated sheer delight at being alive and gave off a light undimmed by the dingy sadness of a poverty that was, I’m sure, as much a lack of ideas as anything else.We didn’t often go hungry, but everything was grey and dusty, everything was so drab that when I saw the pup I knew in an instant what I wanted for myself: something radiant. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen a young creature, after all I’d already given birth to two children, and it’s not as if the pampa never shone. It became dazzling with the rains, reawakened even as it was flooded. No longer flat, it heaved with grain, tents, Indians on the move, white women escaping from captivity, horses swimming with their gaucho riders still astride, while all around the dorado fish darted like lightning into the depths, into the middle of the bursting river.And in each fragment of that river that was devouring its own banks, a bit of sky was reflected. It didn’t seem real to witness such a thing, to see the whole world being dragged along, slowly spiralling, muddy and dizzying, a hundred leagues away to the sea.First men, dogs, horses and calves fought against the choking and gulping river, against the water’s power to kill. Several hours later the struggle was over. The lost herd stretched long and wide, the cattle ran wild like the river, dragged rather than herded, the cows and everything around turning somersaults, hooves up, forwards, down, backwards, like spinning tops, cheek by jowl they hurtled onwards, going in alive and coming out as pounds of rotting flesh. It was a rushing river of cattle falling horizontally; that’s how rivers flow where I’m from, with a momentum inseparable from drowning. And so back to the dust with which I began, the dust that dulls everything, and back to the resplendence of the pup that I saw as though I’d never seen one before and as if I’d never seen cows swimming before, nor their shining hides, nor the whole pampa ablaze like a wet stone in the midday sun.I saw the dog and from then on all I wanted was to find that kind of brightness for myself. So the first thing I did was keep the pup. I named him Estreya (which means Star), and that’s still his name, even though I’ve changed mine since then. Now I’m called China, Josephine Star Iron and Tararira. From the old days I’ve only kept Iron (the English for Fierro), which was never _my _name to begin with, and Star which I chose when I chose Estreya. My real name? Well, I didn’t have one; I was born an orphan, if that’s possible, as if the violet-flowered pastures that softened the savagery of the pampa had somehow given birth to me.That’s what I used to think whenever I heard the woman who brought me up saying ‘it’s as if you just sprouted with the weeds’. La Negra: the black woman later widowed by the blade of my brute of a husband’s knife. My husband, Martín Fierro, who was probably blind drunk and killed El Negro just for being black, just because he could. Or maybe (and I like imagining this, even of Fierro) he killed him in order to widow La Negra, because she’d treated me like her slave for most of my childhood.I was her slave: a black woman’s slave for half my young life and then, very soon after, I was handed over to the gaucho-singer Martín Fierro in holy matrimony. Supposedly El Negro lost me in a drunken game of cards in that dive of a pulpería, and the gaucho-singer wanted me immediately, mere slip of a girl that I was. He wanted to have divine permission, a sacrament so he could throw himself on top of me with God’s blessing. And Fierro did throw himself on top of me, by the time I turned fourteen I’d already given him two boys. When they conscripted him and sent him to the Indian frontier (like they conscripted nearly all the men from that poor outpost without even a church to its name) I was left as alone as I must have been the day I was born. A light-haired baby girl in the hands of a black woman, I obviously someone’s bastard child.When they conscripted Fierro along with all the others, they also took Oscar, who was what Fierro laugh- ingly called (in his famous song) a ‘Jimmy-gringo’ from Britain. The red-head, Elizabeth, whose name I learnt later and would never forget, stayed in the settlement with the intention of getting her husband back. She hadn’t been through what I’d been through. I never even considered going after Fierro and certainly not with his two kids in tow. I felt free, as though the ties that bound me were loosening. I left the boys with an old married couple, two farmhands who’d stayed on the estancia. I lied to them and told them I was going to look for Fierro. Back then I didn’t care whether their father ever came back. I couldn’t have been much older than fourteen years old and I’d had the decency to leave my kids in the care of two kindly old folk who would call them by their names, which is much more than I ever got.I was tethered by my lack of ideas, by my ignorance. I didn’t know I could stand on my own two feet, I didn’t realise until I was on my own, unassisted, and was treated a bit like a widow, as if Fierro had died in a heroic act. Even the foreman on the estancia offered me his condo- lences at the time, my last days as a ‘china’, as someone’s woman. I spent those days feigning pain and suffering, while inside I was so happy that I would run for miles from the settlement to the banks of the brown river, take my clothes off and shout for joy, splashing in the mud with Estreya. I should probably have suspected, but it wasn’t until much later that I found out that the list of gaucho conscripts had been drawn up by the self-same foreman who had sent it to the landowner, who had sent it to the sheriff. Fierro, my coward of a husband and a prize charlatan, never sang about that bit of the story.Had I known I would have thanked them. But there wasn’t time. Really just because of her skin colour – because I hadn’t seen many pale-skinned people and I harboured the hope that she’d turn out to be related to me – I climbed up onto Elizabeth’s wagon. She must have had the same idea because she let me approach her, me, someone with less manners than a mule, less manners than the pup at my side. She looked at me doubtfully, passed me a cup of hot liquid and said ‘tea’ in English, assuming, correctly, that I wouldn’t know the word. ‘Tea’ she said to me, and that word – which in Spanish, ‘ti’, sounds like a gift ‘to you’, ‘for you’ – is apparently a daily custom in English, and that’s how I learnt my first word in that language which was possibly my mother tongue.And tea is what I’m drinking now, while the world seems beset by darkness and violence, by a furious noise that is in fact just one of the frequent storms that shake this river.

Table of Contents

Part 1 The Pampas

It Was the Brightness of the Light 1

The Wagon 7

We Come from Dust 9

La China Isn't a Name 13

Everything Covered Me like a Second Skin 17

Under the British Empire 19

Dragons and My Pampa All Mixed Up Together 23

At the Mercy of the Caranchos 27

Lost in Thought, into the Muck I Sank 31

The Morbid Light of Dead Men's Bones 35

Tank You Senora for Cure Me 37

By Dint of Force 43

That's Also Something You Eat and Drink with Scones 47

British Science 53

Suspended in the Air 57

We Branded Each and Every Animal 61

An Orphan's Fate 67

I Was Burning My Bridges 73

A Prophet with a Paintbrush 77

Part 2 The Fort

Dressed to the Nines 83

A Dust Cloud Can Linger 85

Do Come In, My Dear 87

Colours Became Detached from Their Objects 89

I Climaxed Too 93

Tangled Legs 97

A Bunch of Short Dark Hapsburgs 107

The Whip and the Rod 113

That Strange Gaucho Who Fancied Himself as a Writer 119

Punch and Whisky 125

You Fucking Whore! 131

Goodbye, Colonel 135

Part 3 Indian Territory

Frothing like Foam 141

As If the Milky Way Began or Ended Right There in Her Hands 143

The Earth Croaked 145

An Erratic Flight 147

Most Were Naked and Beautiful 149

Oh China, Love, Forgive Me Now 159

But We Don't Have Any Weapons 173

Light is Doubled on the Islands 277

Contemplating the Trees 181

I Wish You Could See Us 187

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