This gem of a book, published by the wonderful independent Charco Press, is shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, and like Tyll and Hurricane Season, also on the shortlist, involves a reworking of national myths. Here, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara retells a foundational story of Argentina by giving us the woman’s perspective: these are the adventures of China Iron, the wife of the fictional gaucho hero Martín Fierro, and, through her eyes, we see the lives and struggles of the gauchos, the Indians and the Spanish colonialists in 19th century Argentina. It’s an entertaining tale told with brilliance, wit and élan, as well as heart-stopping lyricism in the description of the pampa and the natural world. And as well as playing with notions of fiction in her choice of characters, the author also plays with gender and identity as the narrative unfolds, in ways that amuse and surprise us.
The first section, The Pampas, sees China join forces with Scottish Liz in a journey across the pampas. Liz is going after her husband, the gringo Oscar, who’s been conscripted along with China’s husband, Martín Fierro, and sent to the north of the country, on the border with Indian territory. China, attracted to Liz, her white skin, red hair and translucent blue eyes, finds an old couple to look after her two boys and decides to go with her. The journey across the pampas is both a liberation and a steep learning curve for China: married very young, with two children by the age of 14, she’s had little education and seen nothing of the world. With Liz as a playful companion and mentor she learns English, including the etiquette and customs of the British middle classes, aided by the books, tea and lavender sheets all emanating from the Tardis-like depths of Liz’s covered wagon.
Along with the ludic scenes of tea drinking in the Argentinian dust bowl, this section contains some fantastic descriptions of the pampa, particularly in relation to the play of light after the drabness of dust: it became dazzling with the rains, reawakened even as it was flooded…… the dorado fish darted like lightning into the depths..cows swimming……their shining hides……the whole pampa ablaze like a wet stone in the midday sun. There are wonderful and observant accounts of the animals inhabiting this land, the hares, cuys and armadillos, the flamingos in the lagoons, herons, the occasional puma. When the gaucho Rosario turns up with his thunderous herd of cattle, they too fall in peaceably with China and Liz and we get the impression of this happy group moving evenly across the vast landscape, living harmoniously and respectfully with nature. And as China’s attraction to Liz develops into a deep desire she cuts off her plaits and dons a shirt and breeches, her love reciprocated by just an occasional tantalising kiss.
In the second section, The Fort, the women turn up at the fort and estancia of Colonel Hernández, known as Las Hortensias. He’s an elderly colonialist, attempting to introduce modern agricultural methods into the pampa and a massive fan of Britain and its industrial revolution. He dreams of the day when British trains will race across the pampa and sees his plans stymied by the indolence and recalcitrance of the gauchos- he and his force of 20 odd soldiers are in charge of over a hundred gauchos. There are some almost comic scenes of the gauchos being dressed, lined up and drilled like a European army, yet the objectifying imagery, a wall of gauchos highly polished as British boots, sparkling clean gauchos shining like the Colonel’s Bohemian crystal glasses, indicates the Colonel’s real view of them as an inferior and disposable work force. Indeed the thin veneer of civilisation represented by all that crystal is soon brought into question when our protagonists discover the Campo Malo, a place where dissidents and potential runaways are tortured, killed or staked out.
As Liz endures the Colonel’s increasingly lustful glances during their many tedious dinners, China’s voyage of self-discovery and liberation continues: her love for Liz is consummated in some intensely passionate and erotic scenes. A further discovery is that one of the people passing through Campo Malo was a peasant poet whom Hernandez used to sing to his gaucho workforce to boost morale. So taken was he with the poet’s songs that he used them and the poet’s name for his own book. (Yes, the poet was Martín Fierro and Hernandez was, yes, the author of the epic poem- Martín Fierro el Gaucho). The women realise they need to move on and cleverly orchestrate their escape after a drunken orgy- along with 20 of the most skilled gauchos and their horses who will help in the setting up of their estancia at their final destination.
The third section of the book, Indian Territory, sees them crossing the pampa again and there’s more beautiful language: its grass waving… a two- coloured sea: when the stalks surrendered to the wind the pampa whitened, frothing like foam. They arrive at the Indian encampment and into a paradisiacal world where the Indians live harmoniously with nature. China and Liz are welcomed into the Indian community and there are many scenes of getting stoned and general love-making. All sorts of other characters turn out to be living there. There’s Martín Fierro and China’s little boys, who she’s delighted to see again, but also random people such as German scientists and exiles from the Republic of Argentina. The melding of China and Liz into the community is cleverly illustrated by the increasing appearance of the Indian language Guaraní in the text. So cabybaras become kapi’ybaras. This section did at times get a little surreal for me, but culminates in an achingly beautiful ending as the Indian people leave, silently advancing along the limpid ysyry, which breathe the peace of flood and ebb, of whiskered fish and clinging tuju of the river bed… we migrate to escape the cold, we migrate so that we’re never where they expect us to be. We migrate when the tatatina, the Paraná’s sacred mist, swallows everything up… We know how to leave as if vanishing into thin air: imagine a people that disappears.
In its barely 200 pages, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara succeeds in giving us the main players at a crucial time in Argentina’s history and the construction of its nationhood. At the same time the novel subverts the male dominated foundational myth to have China Iron and Liz centre stage as the wily protagonists and adventurers, controlling their own lives and sexual identities. China’s not the only character exploring her sexuality: there’s more cross dressing and exploration of sexual preferences and gender roles throughout the book, all of which undermine 19th century, and indeed contemporary, notions of femininity and masculinity. I found this novel thrilling and exciting for its subversive ideas but also for the sense of adventurousness it conveyed, especially in that first section. What young girl mired in a life of drudgery would not long to escape with a beloved companion in that covered wagon? We have the translators, Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre, to thank for their skill in conveying this sense of elation, for their rendering of the lyrical passages and the exuberant eroticism as well as capturing the upbeat narrative voice of China Iron. This is a must for any reader interested in the construction of national identity in Latin America and well deserving of its place on the shortlist for this year’s Booker International Prize.