Just Imagine, My Dear, It Won’t Be Painless

Notes on Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s The Adventures of China Iron

March 15, 2021

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The Adventures of China Iron
by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
Charco Press
2019

In 1872, José Hernández published an epic poem, Martín Fierro, the eponymous story of an outlaw Argentine gaucho, or cowboy. The text was canonized over the years, seen as a special window into the nineteenth-century national soul of Argentina. In form and content, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s short novel, Las aventuras de la China Iron – originally published in 2017, translated into English in 2019, and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize the same year – is a radically subversive encounter with Martín Fierro. Cabezón, born in Buenos Aires in 1968, has several acclaimed novels under her belt, and was a founding member of the feminist collective Ni Una Menos.

Cabezón transformed the original epic into parallel coming-of-age stories, on the one hand, the story of the protagonist, China Iron, and, on the other, of Argentina itself. Rich in foundational violence, these personal and national trajectories figuratively map a mental and historical terrain of race and empire, of labour and nature, of sexuality and gender, and of utopian possibilities, just as China and a growing band of misfits literally traverse the pampas in a horse-drawn wagon, heading south toward the Patagonian desert, or Indian Territory. An exhaustive inventory of the region’s flora and fauna, akin to the details of a naturalist’s notebooks, accumulates as the narrative winds on. In interviews, Cabezón has remarked that such indexing helps to mark, by way of implicit juxtaposition, the devastation wrought on the pampas in the interim by agro-industrial soy expansion.

In the Hernández poem, Fierro’s young wife makes but a fleeting appearance. In The Adventures, by contrast, Cabezón gives her the name China Iron and moves her centre stage. Fierro, meanwhile, recedes quickly to the background, returning only toward the end of the novel in utterly metamorphosed form.

It isn’t until a third of the way into the tale that fragmented elements of China’s past begin to assume some semblance of coherence. Misogynist terror informs every early turn of this origin story. Orphaned as an infant, she was seemingly placed in a trunk by the door of the hut of an impoverished couple – La Negra and El Negro – who end up taking her in and putting her to work. She was whipped daily by La Negra and sexually abused by El Negro. The two went hand in hand: “I think La Negra started punishing me for that, when El Negro started to paw at me; she did it out of jealousy – even animals get jealous.”

“La Negra would laugh at me,” China narrates, “saying that my mother must be one of those foreign women who ended up working as whores for the estancia [landed estate] bosses …. I thought about the whole boss’s whore thing. It had never occurred to me: I might be a boss’s daughter.” As a racially ambiguous figure throughout, this paternal trace might explain the later reveal that China’s hair is blonde.

China’s first love is Raúl, “a half-Indian boy,” who is also an orphan. El Negro, by this time too old to stand up to Rául, nonetheless feels “cheated of his property,” and drunkenly bets China at a card came in a run-down tavern, losing to none other than Martín Fierro. A segment from the opening passages of the novel now comes into sharper relief: “I was handed over to the gaucho-singer Martín Fierro in holy matrimony…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.”

Fierro, we learn, had never looked in a mirror. In a recurring motif of the blurred racial identities of gauchos in the Argentine context, Fierro is outraged by the indigenous features he sees in China’s first-born child. Believing Raúl to have been the father, Fierro strikes him dead – Raúl is found “with his head split in two like a canyon. He must have been drinking and fallen over, people said. We all knew that wasn’t true. Raúl didn’t drink.” “Fierro killed my Rául,” China explains, “but I think he didn’t kill me because I was the only blonde china he’d touched in his life and I was his; that set him apart from the other men, because I was a trophy worthy of a landowner.” As it turns out, Fierro was wrong about the child’s genetic lineage. “The boy, like Fierro, has moles that form a star in his groin.”

Here we get a sense of the enigmatic play of china/China, which is at once the name of the narrator and something more generic. “‘China’ posed a particular problem,” the translators note in an afterword, “since the word variously means girl, woman, wife or servant, carrying strong racial and class connotations, yet it is also (when capitalised) the name of the heroine herself, despite it not really being an individual name.” Early on, the narrator is asked her name, and is met with disbelief when she responds, “La China.” But she insists, “that’s what La Negra used to shout at me,” and that’s what her husband Fierro would “call me last thing at night as he dropped off to sleep, ‘safe and sound in the arms of love’ as he put it later in one of his songs. He also shouted China when he wanted his food or his trousers or mate to drink or anything else. I was La China.” She is told in response, that where she was from, “all women were called china but they each had their own name as well.”

Shortly after Fierro is introduced, he, like many gauchos, is conscripted by the Argentine army to wage warfare on the indigenous frontier – glimpses of Argentina’s genocidal history. As the wagon makes its way across the pampas, the travellers come upon field after field of indigenous dead: “It poured with rain and the water swept away the merciful dust: all was mud and protruding bones. White bones, pearly and iridescent like a devil’s lantern, the morbid light of dead men’s bones, of mortal remains, of skeletons.” After Fierro departs the scene, the 14-year-old China leaves her “kids in the care of two kindly old folk who would call them by their names, which is more than I ever got.” Thus begins the coming-of-age tale of an adolescent mother of two.

Liz is the second figure of import in the novel. Of her origins, “we knew less, only the little she told us: unlike me, she did have a father and mother, Scottish farmers, both redheads like her.” It is through Liz that the novel opens onto the expanses of the British Empire, and imperial relations with Argentina, in particular, over the nineteenth century. Liz owns the wagon in question, and is en route to find Oscar, her husband, who, like Fierro, had been conscripted.

It is also via Liz that China discovers an expansive sexuality and progressively more mutable gender identity. Apart from a passing early encounter with Raúl, this is the first scene where sex is tied to desire rather than violence:

I got into the wagon. I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to take the scissors and cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad. Good boy she said to me, then pulled my face towards her and kissed me on the mouth. It surprised me, I didn’t understand, I didn’t know you could do that and it was revealed to me so naturally: why wouldn’t you be able to do that? It’s just that back where I came from women didn’t kiss each other, though I did remember cows sometimes mounting other cows. I liked it, Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth, her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.

With time, China gains confidence, and such scenes grow in mutual intensity; but Liz remains in control: “even before the first rays of sun came into the bedroom I’d woken up practically drowning with Liz’s cunt in my mouth and her rubbing herself against my face, my breathing syncopated with her secretions, she made me breathe in and out to her rhythm as if she were breaking me in. That was what she was doing whether I realised it or not, how better to tame an animal than by forcing it to breathe when you choose.”

Later, in the midst of a raucous ranch party, peopled with farmhands and estancia servants, China’s discovery goes further: “I also felt a curious new happiness in my body: I had kissed a few girls and the gaucho they’d called a faggot. I was definitely getting a taste for them, kisses from girls and gay gauchos.” Still later, she comes to see herself as two-spirited. Chapter titles like “I Climaxed Too,” “Tangled Legs,” and “As If the Milky Way Began or Ended Right There in Her Hands,” speak to the novel’s through line of sexual liberation and the vicissitudes of gender.

Just as the violent parochialism of China’s childhood is broken up by the expanding horizons of the road trip, the apparently sealed-off dynamics of Argentine state-building and nation-forming are revealingly linked to global expansionary waves of industrial capitalism under British dominion, on one side, and violent encroachment into Indian Territory, on the other. “Fierro used to say that the caranchos had to eat too,” China remembers at one point, “and I tend to think he was right about that, although he didn’t take into consideration the huge number of carcasses that our country produced, and not just dead cows; Indian and gaucho corpses also fed several generations of scavenger birds.”

This perspectival complexity, a dialectic of the high and low, is most often dealt with in Liz’s meandering stories from atop the wagon. “‘Only here in the pampa could a wagon create a bird’s eye view’, observed Liz and so I found out what perspective was…. From up high or from down low the world looked different.”  From the Queen to the cowboy, China, “began to see other perspectives: the Queen of England – a rich, powerful woman who owned millions of people’s lives… didn’t see the world in the same way as, for example, a gaucho in his hovel with his leather hides who burns dung to keep them warm. For the Queen, the world was a sphere filled with riches belonging to her, and that she could order to be extracted from anywhere; for the gaucho the world was a flat surface where you galloped about rounding up cows, cutting the throats of your enemies before they cut your own throat, or fleeing conscription and battles.”

Rich in foundational violence, these personal and national trajectories figuratively map a mental and historical terrain of race and empire, of labour and nature, of sexuality and gender, and of utopian possibilities, just as China and a growing band of misfits literally traverse the pampas in a horse-drawn wagon, heading south toward the Patagonian desert, or Indian Territory.

Few literary passages better convey the totality of late-nineteenth century British imperialism than the following. Here, Liz’s wagon tale renders the essence of capitalism and empire, of industry and war, of logistical infrastructure and the appropriation of nature, of technology and the annihilation of space by time, and finally of labour and the imposition of capitalist time-discipline.

Liz carried on with her stories about Great Britain. When she went to London, the sky was leaden and smoky from the locomotives and factories, and the almost incessant rain had a sharp tang to it. The air she breathed was damp and grey, with a strange orangey tint, and so heavy and thick that she could almost see it. Yet as soon as she left the city behind, the light gleamed on unbroken fields of grass that stretched all the way to the cliffs pounded by the sea. The land ends abruptly there, as if England had been cut off from the rest of the world with an axe, as if the land had been forcibly condemned to an insularity which those of us who live there, we, the British, darling, try to overcome by dint of force, making ourselves the centre, organising the world around us, being the motor, market and matrix of all nations. Here in Argentina we’re so far removed from that other island which rises up sustained by its weaponry, its steamships, its machines invented to dominate the world with ever faster production. That island where metal goods reign as intractably as the railroads laid down all over by royal decree so that the fruits of men’s labour migrates from fields, mountains and jungles to ports, ships and finally into her own port, to the all-devouring mouth of Kronos. That mouth where everything becomes fuel for its own insatiable speed: from the still-warm hairs on a cowhide to the frozen facets of diamonds, from stretchy rubber to crumbling coal. The power of Great Britain isn’t in armies or banks: our strength comes from speed, beating the clock, trailblazing, cutting production times, faster ships, machine guns, banking transactions made in a matter of days, above all the power of the railways dividing the earth, heading for every port laden with imperial manufacturing and returning with spoils and fruits from every land.

Other demystifying moments in the wagon reveal the fetishism attached to the products of labour when they assume the form of commodities, bringing to light all of that hidden sweat embodied in a hot drink. Life in the wagon was one “as full of nice smells as an East India Company warehouse. The smell of near-black tea leaves torn from the green mountains of India that would travel to Britain without losing their moisture, and without losing the sharp perfume born of the tears Buddha shed for the world’s suffering, suffering that also travels in tea: we drink green mountains and rain, and we also drink what the Queen drinks. We drink the Queen, we drink work, and we drink the broken back of the man bent double as he cuts the leaves, and the broken back of the man carrying them. Thanks to steam power, we no longer drink the lash of the whip of the oarsmen’s backs. But we do drink choking coal miners…. Because nothing comes from nothing, Liz explained to me: everything comes from work; that’s also something you eat and drink with scones.”

Part of the power of these passages is traceable to Cabezón’s persistent digging beneath surfaces, her upturning of appearances, the subtle ingenuity with which she maps the integral and innumerable, but also invisible and silent, inner connections between otherwise seemingly unattached things. Here she probes the human metabolism with the biophysics of nature undergirding the wealth of empire, and there she grapples with the secret social relations of exploitation underpinning the commodity form.

A third character eventually joins Liz and China in their voyage toward Indian Territory. Rosario – also known as Rosa – is a mixed-race gaucho whose back story is filled with the violence of masculinity, class power, and racism, together with instances of cathartic retribution. Rosario had fled his childhood home with a bloody face. He hadn’t wanted to abandon his mother and siblings, but feared his stepfather would kill him if he stayed. He was found and cared for by some gauchos, and eventually was taken in by an old woman who lived in a hovel. She provided him an animal hide to sleep on, and he was allowed “to bed down by the fire.” Rosario was later hired by a large landowner for his skill at taming wild horses. The estate boss took a paternalistic liking to Rosa and asked that Rosa teach his skills to the boss’s son.

At one point, in a drunken state, the young master of the estate demands to ride Rosa’s beloved horse Bizco, once responsible for saving Rosa’s life and his only remaining connection to his mother. Rosa declines, but the “blond boy said that if an orphan could ride Bizco, he could too.” The young master mounts the horse repeatedly, only to be thrown to the ground. After a few bouts of this, the blond boy slits the horse’s throat in frustration. Rosa beats the young master severely before being pulled off and held down by other farmhands fearful of the boss’s vengeance. He was bound hand and foot to four stakes and pissed on by the young master, while being called a fucking Indian.

The gauchos, who had laughed half-heartedly for the young master’s benefit as Rosa was pissed on and humiliated, waited until the cover of evening to make amends:

At night they took pity on Rosa, and when it was pitch black they freed him. He took the best horse and made his escape. He hid in dense scrub, his body aching from the stakes. They came searching for him, but since the young master was the only one who really wanted to find him, he stayed hidden till they forgot all about it or gave him up for lost. Rosa lay in wait for him, and as soon as he galloped past alone, Rosa attacked him. ‘We fell to the ground. He took his pistol out and shot at me. He got me, but I could still use my knife. I stuck it in him. I caught him in the shoulder, then pulled it out and gave him a new smile across his neck. I left him where he lay, spat on him and pissed on him. Then I galloped off.

This moment of class catharsis is followed shortly afterwards by Rosa settling scores with the violent patriarch of his youth. Arriving back at his old home, his mother, brothers, and sisters plead with him to leave before his stepfather returns. But Rosa doesn’t heed their entreaties. He sits down in his mother’s shack and awaits his stepfather’s arrival. When the fateful homecoming finally comes about, the two trade racist insults, the one calling the other a “Guaraní piece of shit,” with the other’s riposte, “you Indian bastard.”

‘Me, an Indian?’ exclaimed the older man taking his knife out, ‘draw your knife and we’ll see who’s boss.’ Rosa drew his knife, they circled around the pot, facing each other. The old man struck at Rosa’s chest: Rosa dodged the blade and pushed the old man over. Then Rosa jumped on him, hauled him over, sat on his backside as if he was riding him, grabbed his hair and shouted you bastard, you beat my mother, you cut my face, and you hurt my brothers and sisters, and he slashed the man’s throat from top to bottom. He felt the man die, felt every last shudder of life ebbing out of that hateful body, which gradually slackened as the blood soaked away into the animal hide beneath.

Again, this homicidal expurgation, however temporarily satisfying, remains at the level of individual resolution. The relentless structural injustice persists. All the unnamed Rosarios continue to be beaten by their fathers, and when they grow up to be gauchos, they are exploited by landlords and conscripted to the army to fight wars against the Indigenous, whose heritage they often share but are encouraged to repress and forget. Even in this specific scenario, Rosa has to flee the scene, and his mother and younger siblings are left without food or income. It is while on the lam for these murders that Rosa joins Liz and China on their adventures.

The penultimate act in the drama opens with the wagon’s arrival at the estate of Colonel José Hernández – yes, that José Hernández. Here Cabezón reimagines Hernández as the deceitful appropriator of Fierro’s gaucho songs which Hernández writes down and passes off as his own to great acclaim and fortune. During their stay at Hernández’s estate, the old man pontificates on progress and civilization while in a state of near-constant inebriation. With technical panache, the translators opt to convey the madness of one such emblematic flurry of verbiage by retaining the enormously long sentence structure of the original Spanish:

we are transforming a seething mass of larvae into a workforce, just imagine my dear, it won’t be painless but nevertheless, we’ve had to sacrifice our compassion, we must all sacrifice ourselves in order to consolidate the Argentine Nation, he was saying, beginning to slur his words but speaking as forcefully as ever, he was physically expanding, Hernández was undergoing a volcanic eruption, his face began twitching, we are putting the music of civilization into the flesh of these larvae, they will become a workforce whose hearts beat to the rhythm of the factory, our bugles play the rhythm of production to discipline their anarchic souls, he said, and his eyes began to wander, each in its own direction, then they sought each other out until he went cross-eyed, then he went purple, his eyeballs almost touching each other, and finally he roared: Everything else is savage, primitive, and brutal! and the rural patriarch’s head collapsed onto the table, his mouth spurting a strange kind of seed at us as he fell: a jet of vomit came out, his head split his plate in two, splashing the remains of the Beef Wellington with blood, glasses overturned, spreading wine across the tablecloth, the water jugs toppled and dripped over the edge of the table onto the floor, the liquid, like Hernández’s words, leaving a sticky stain, and a pig’s head intended for the third course leapt to the ground as if it were a bird or a kangaroo – yes, Liz had told me about them in the wagon too, there were kangaroos in the world like huge hares with a bag on their belly to carry their babies around, and they stood on two legs and moved in huge bounds.

A kind of poetic primitive accumulation is on display, in which the form of Hernández’s manic speechifying mirrors the Argentine state’s unrelenting violence, its Conquest of the Desert, its gathering of the dispossessed into a palpable proletarian mass.

A kind of poetic primitive accumulation is on display, in which the form of Hernández’s manic speechifying mirrors the Argentine state’s unrelenting violence, its Conquest of the Desert, its gathering of the dispossessed into a palpable proletarian mass. “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. And now we are conquering a workforce for the nation, just look at my gauchos…. Did all of them like it? No, some needed a good hiding to see reason, others the stocks, various others needed to be whipped and some escaped never to return.” For Hernández, his estate and his cattle, located as they were in Indian Territory, constituted “the spearhead of the nation, they are progress penetrating the desert.”

Hernandéz, as landed proprietor, shudders at the possibility of the gauchos realizing what interests they hold in common with the Indigenous population, how the nation being forged in blood incorporates them only on subordinate terms to the propertied:

Just imagine, darling, one day the gauchos will realise that they far outnumber us, and although they know – because they do know, they’re not completely daft and some of them have been around a fair bit – that the Argentine Army is behind us, and therefore also partly behind them but mainly behind us – here we’re all in it together but not to the same extent, some of us are completely in it and others only partly, perhaps I’m not being clear – as I say, one day they’ll realise, and then before the first battalion can arrive, they’ll already have slit our throats.

The Indigenous and their land have a distinctive role to play in avoiding such a terrible outcome. “Argentina needs that land in order to progress,” Hernández explains. “And as for the gauchos, they need an enemy to turn them into patriotic Argentines. We all need the Indians. I am creating a nation on land, in combat, and on paper, do you see?”

Liz hatches a plan, convincing dozens of the most skilled gauchos of the Hernández estate to join the wagon crew in their travels to Indian Territory. They steal horses and equipment and set off in the cover of night, now a bigger, eclectic multitude. Hernández is left alone to wake to nothing but a hangover and bitter fury.

The closing, utopic section of the novel, is perhaps also its most formally innovative. First, there is a shift in register as they enter Indian Territory, where they are welcomed by a group of Selk’nam people who have mixed with Tehuelche people and a fair number of Winkas, or white people, everyone now taking the name Tehuelche. In a kind of incipient cosmopolitanism from below, there are captive Englishwomen among this grouping, who are now seemingly freely living new lives among the community. There are renegade German scientists chasing dinosaur remains. And there are hundreds of gauchos who have quickly abandoned their cowboy attire for local dress.

Crucially, among them, China encounters a redeemed Fierro, now openly Indigenous and of indeterminate gender. Together with Fierro, somehow reunited, are China’s two long-lost sons. China narrates the initial disorientation of their chance rendezvous:

Among them there was a man who moved so delicately, his long braids swaying against his tunic of feathers as pink as mine and a sash around his waist. With the Indians, as I said, neither clothes nor way of living is determined by sex. He looked like a china disguised as a flamingo, you could just make out a touch of masculinity in his stubble, nothing else. He came over to me and suddenly I knew that what Hernández had said was true: it was Fierro, but now made more out of feathers than of Iron.

Freshly incarnated in this way, Fierro had taken up their old role as folk singer anew within their novel environs. Here, Cabezón repeats direct, rhyming stanzas from the original epic poem, but now as a song of Fierro, and playfully altered in content to reflect Fierro’s sexual discoveries:

Like Jesus rising from the tomb

In two days I was well:

The third day dawned, he kissed my lips

His salt-sweet mouth mine did eclipse

He mounted me, he held my hips

To heaven I came from hell.

 

The sun shone on my arse that hour.

My spurs I cast away,

A moment more I couldn’t wait

To suck him dry and with him sate

My lust for him, then lie prostrate;

Such freedom I knew that day.

To you in words I can’t explain

The pleasure that I felt

To have his prick come into me

In paradise I seemed to be

Through flesh was God revealed to me

And at his feet I knelt.

The Indigenous persuade China to forgive and embrace Fierro his sins of the past. “I’d never imagined I would see the beast looking so angelic,” China says of Fierro on the heels of a shared meal. “I had breakfast again with all his family, which is also mine now, with all the children of this person who’d once been my husband and was now a loving mother to a whole string of little ones.”

Liz also reencounters Oscar in the new community, and China enters into open, loving relations with and Indigenous woman named Kauka. China becomes a member of Kauka’s tribe and traditional notions of the family form quickly dissolve in the wake of new forms of sociality. “I soon became one of her tribe,” China explains, “almost as quickly as I had become one of the family with Liz, Estreya [the dog that long travelled with the wagon], and Rosa; there among the Indians my family grew with my own sons, Juan and Martín, with Kauka and her daughters, Nahuela and Kauka, who are also my daughters now, and – most unlikely of all – with Fierro and Oscar. Our families are large, linked by more than bloodlines. This is my family now.”

The new people-in-formation give themselves the name Iñchíñ. But they immediately face an existential threat. The Winkas continue to encroach on Indian Territory in the name of the Argentine nation. While the Iñchíñ are not lacking in the necessary courage, the sheer imbalance of weaponry and numbers suggests that direct warfare with the Winkas would lead to ruin. They decide to break north and forge a new river community in the almost impenetrable marshlands of the Paraná River, peacefully cohabitating with the Guaraní communities of the riverbanks.

One recalls Andreas Malm’s recent intervention on the wild in the pages of Historical Materialism. For Malm, there was certainly good sense in the shift over the 1980s and 1990s from wilderness to environmental justice as the centrepiece of the ecology movement. Reactionary xenophobes abound in the circles defending wilderness today. And yet, Malm insists, “a case can… be made for a progressive, cosmopolitan, Marxist view of wilderness as a space less fully subjugated to capital than others.” In outlining this case, Malm recovers a certain unity connecting very different experiences of maroon communities of escaped Caribbean slaves and Communist-Jewish Partisan communities in the marshes of Belarus at the height of the Holocaust. Across distinct centuries and separate continents, these communal experiments exemplify, “a long history of exploited and persecuted people seeking freedom in and through the wild.” In the end, Malm’s Marxist view of wilderness, “asks what we lose in a rapidly warming world where the remotest and supposedly wildest corners of the world are among the first to be destroyed.” We’re back to the rationale of Cabezón’s meticulous inventories of nineteenth century flora and fauna of the pampas and Patagonia, against the ruinations of the agro-industrial and mega-mining present.

In The Adventures, the Iñchíñ call their river community the Y pa’û islands. A piece of wild less subjugated to the whims of capital and the colonial whip. They work rotationally, one month in three. They migrate only along the rivers unnavigable by Argentine and Uruguayan boats, and exclusively when, “the tatatina, the Paraná’s voracious mist, swallows everything up, when dawn is white blindness and things can only be distinguished by their sound, if they make any sound.” Their new mode of living is rooted in a sustainable metabolism with non-human nature and unalienated forms of labour. “Our rivers are alive and the streams are animals,” China recounts, “they know that we live as one, that we only kill what we need to eat and that our fine native bulls and our healthy cows are our livelihood; all we ask of the beasts is that they wander freely on the islands and that they eat and shit, they are Iñchíñ  too. What little work we have is done contentedly, though not without effort.”

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