A coming-of-age story, a road novel, a picaresque adventure, a piece of nature and travel writing, an epic, and a reinterpretation of Martín Fierro through a feminist, queer, postcolonial perspective, peppered with sexual orgies, cross dressing, and hallucinogenic mushrooms – The Adventures of China Iron (2019, tr. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre. Original: Las aventuras de la China Iron, 2017) is all of the above and more: it is great fun.
Our narrator, the eponymous China Iron, is a fourteen-year-old orphan who was won in a card game by a gaucho, Fierro. We are in Argentina in the nineteenth-century, and our protagonist is at a dead end: she has two children, no family, no education, and no source of income.
When Fierro is conscripted into the army to fight against the natives, in an effort to expand the “nation of Argentina” (which, in reality, was an emblem for European rule) into indigenous territory, China sees this as an opportunity to escape from her village and start a new life. She leaves her children behind with some farmers, and, on the pretext of looking for her husband (she is not), China joins a Scottish woman, Liz, in a journey across the pampas. The two are accompanied by China’s stray dog named Estreya, and the three will be later joined by a gaucho, Rosario, whom they call Rosa. They are headed to a criollo fort near indigenous territory, where Liz expects to find her husband and claim a piece of land.
As our narrator sets out on this journey, she asserts a new identity and takes a new name for herself: China (pronounced chee-nah) is a Quechua-derived word for an indigenous woman; Iron alludes to the English translation of the last name of our protagonist’s husband, Fierro. “I was burning my bridges. To leave you have to become anther person.” China claims an individual identity by choosing a name that is not an individual name: china – woman, everywoman, this woman.
The book is a reimagining of José Hernández’s Martín Fierro, from the point of view of Fierro’s abandoned wife, a nameless china who barely appears in the original poem, an epic published in two parts, in 1872 and in 1879.
Your book is a complete subversion of perspective: rather than on white men, you centre the foundation of Argentina on women, queer, and non-white characters; rather than positioning gauchos and criollos in conflict with indigenous characters (seen as ‘savages’ by the official narrative recorded in Martín Fierro), you highlight the barbaric aspects of the European colonialism – as China Iron’s coming of age mirrors that of the nascent Argentina, you point out to a diverse, queer, collective imaginary founded on an utopic, collaborative community. “From Liz’s story and my care for each of our possessions, a space was emerging.”
The narrative is divided into three parts: “The Pampas”, where China describes her background story as wife of the gaucho Fierro, then embarks on a journey away from this life, and falls in love with Liz; “The Fort”, where China and Liz arrive at a criollo settlement in the frontier of indigenous territory, governed by a fictionalized version of the poet Hernández; and “Indian Territory”, when they leave the criollo rule and are welcomed by an indigenous community run by a female leader.
The fictional Hernández is a drunkard who plagiarized the epic that would become Argentina’s foundational narrative. His voice is nasty, brutal, deeply racist. His rule, as an emblem of colonialism, is based on work exploitation, repression of indigenous traditions, sexism, and violent punishments for anyone who tries to deviate or break free from the norm.
Needless to say, Liz and China will not remain stuck in his nonsensical fort, and their journey will lead them to the nomadic (and utopic) indigenous community nearby, where gender and social roles are fluid, and indigenous characters live together with everyone who defected from Hernández rule – gauchos, criollos, Europeans, women, and queer characters.
It is also interesting to notice that, as the narrative progresses, the use of indigenous words increases: along with English and Spanish, we have words in Guaraní and Mapuche. “We were a chorus in different languages that were the same and different, just like what we said, the same and yet unfathomable until we said them together. (…) We always ended up laughing, and then what we said seemed like chanting that would end up who knows where: the pampa is also a world fashioned so that sound can travel in all directions, little more than silence reigns there.”
This is particularly interesting, because your novel is all about voice: China Iron’s incantatory voice, luring us into her story; your choice of giving voice to characters who have previously been silenced away from the official narrative; and the underlying need to seek for new names, to enlarge one’s perspective through language, and to subvert foundational narratives.
“I wish you could see us”, says our China Iron, “but no one will. We know how to leave as if vanishing into thin air: imagine a people that disappears, a people whose colours, houses, dogs, clothes, cows and horses all gradually dissolve like a spectre.” The book ends with an arrow pointing forward that is also an invitation and a disappearing act: a guiding spirit and an expanding vision; a spectre in the horizon, transparent, intangible, but always there.
“But the dragon aroused such passion in me, that beautiful beast made from horrible beasts: the eyes of a locust, the horns of a zebu, the snout of an ox, the nose of a dog, the whiskers of a catfish, the shaggy mane of a ñandú, the tail of a viper, the scales of a fish, the claws of a gigantic chimango, and with potent phlegm made of fire. The dragon was an animal that I liked to imagine flying above our heads and over our roof like a guardian angel: why shouldn’t a wagon be a house protected by a dragon?” ―
It was under the sway of that force that I began to feel, and now I think perhaps it’s always that way, that you feel the world through others, through your bond with others. ―
About the book
- Charco Press, 2019, tr. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, 200 p. Goodreads
- Original: Las aventuras de la China Iron, 2017
- My rating: 4 stars
- The novel was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, and longlisted for the 2020 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.