It has taken me a while to get round to writing this review, largely because I didn’t know what to say. In the face of Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s torrent of effervescent prose, so striking and vivid it is almost breathing, my own words seem to have failed me completely. The Adventures of China Iron – a thoroughly worthy contender for the International Booker Prize 2020 – is unlike anything I have ever read before and in many senses a hard act to follow.
I think it isn’t wrong to say that this novel won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. A reimagining of Martín Fierro, the epic poem by José Hernández that is a founding myth of Argentinian gaucho culture, The Adventures of China Iron gives the floor to Fierro’s young wife, whom he won in a card game when she was just fourteen. Described by the publisher as taking a ‘feminist, LGBT, postcolonial point of view’, the novel is an irreverent new take on a literary legend that doesn’t shy away from depicting orgies, torture, drunken brawls and rape. At the same time, it offers an infinitely tender portrait of friendship, romantic love and personal education, not to mention being a sweeping elegy to the vast and varied beauties of the Argentinian landscape.
Broken up into relatively short chapters divided between three parts, the novel takes us on a nineteenth-century journey with China Iron, the teenage mother who leaves her (rather unwanted) children behind and embarks on a journey across the pampas with her new friend Liz, a Scottish settler whose husband has been accidentally conscripted. The first section takes place in the wagon, where China and Liz become firm friends; the second, altogether wilder, section is set at the fort run by Colonel Hernández (the name, recalling the creator of Martín Fierro, is no accident), where against a backdrop of military-style gaucho training and gratuitous violence the two women become lovers. The third part sees them travel on to ‘Indian territory’, where they finally find a peaceful home within a river-based community and settle into a utopia of free love and magical realism.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is – there is absolutely no let-up in this novel, either in terms of plot or language. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s prose throws readers straight in at the deep end: the breathless rush of printed words reads exactly like a wide-eyed child would sound as she discovers the extraordinary facets of the world around her, and the language develops as China Iron grows, incorporating increasingly complex ideas and imagery before ultimately opening up to allow the indigenous Guaraní language in. In a bold but brilliant move, the translators have left these words in the original – the terms are never explained but somehow comprehensible, drawing the reader in irrevocably to the magical world in which China chooses to make her home.
It did take me a little while to get into reading China Iron, but once I had adapted to its unique pace, tone and rhythm I found myself eager for every word. Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is a brilliant wordsmith, hiding striking images within that tripping mass of text. At one point China is overwhelmed to see ‘the rainbow had one leg shorter than the other’; at another she observes that ‘the world is like a woven cloth’. And it is, in this novel at least, a rich tapestry of threads that build up in layer upon colourful layer to provide a complex but oh-so-satisfying view of the natural world. It is, especially in the third section, a world that I’m pretty sure no longer exists (and maybe never did), but it certainly made me want to travel there.
While the environment plays an important role in China Iron, as does Liz, the mother-lover-sister-liberator figure, and Colonel Hernández, who sees his fort as an instance ‘progress penetrating the desert’ when instead it is a symbol of all that is wrong about colonialism, almost all my sympathies were ultimately reserved for China herself. The journey she goes on in this slight novel is truly incredible, not just in terms of geographical but also emotional distance, and as I read it was a journey I felt I went on too. My eyes were opened to what literature can do – the way it can help to create myths or legends, but also the power it has to subvert and snub, to at least try to remake things in the way we would like. China, who at the beginning of the novel ‘couldn’t imagine having love and freedom at the same time’, travels to a physical and mental space where she can have both, and, strange as the experience of getting there was, I ended up feeling happy for her.
‘I was tethered by my lack of ideas,’ she says of her younger self; ‘I didn’t know I could stand on my own two feet.’ If there’s one thing this novel isn’t lacking, it’s ideas – or the confidence to stand bravely on its own two feet. The Adventures of China Iron is a romp, a dream, an explosive testimony to the power of the literary imagination. Best approached with an open mind – but if you’re willing to have your reading world shaken up, I can’t currently think of many better places to start.