par Fiston Mwanza Mujila
République démocratique du Congo, 2014
Las aventuras de la China Iron [The Adventures of China Iron], a witty, subversive reimagining of Argentina's so-called "national epic" Martín Fierro told from the point of view of the gaucho Martín Fierro's abandoned wife, sure sounded like it'd be right up my "rustic" intertextual alley, but that eyesore of a cover still had me worried until Cabezón Cámara's succession of ace storytelling shenanigans was well underway. How was I to know that hallucinogenic mushrooms, a delirious critique of the 19th century "civilization and barbarism" discourse popularized by Sarmiento, and a gender-bending orgy scene or two involving the occasionally cross-dressing title character would all factor into the novel's proceedings? For those not familiar with the 1872 & 1879 Martín Fierro beloved by Borges and maybe worried about the wealth of literary in-jokes likely to follow, suffice it to say that the only thing you really need to know as background for Las aventuras is that its amiable narrator--a teenage orphan won by the gaucho in a card game in José Hernández's original poem but who here calls herself Josephine Star Iron or China Iron or just plain China according to her mood--sets out on a journey across the Pampas in the company of an Englishwoman named Liz, a puppy named Estreya, and a gaucho named Rosa whom they meet along the way. The destination? A small fort on the frontier with the Indian territories, where Liz's husband has been conscripted to fight against the savages. The journey? Part voyage of initiation, part picaresque adventure saga, part Ema, la cautiva-like knife in the back of the Argentinean canon drizzled with a splash of Huck Finn lighting out for the Territory at the end. I had a good time reading this. In her narrator's innocent and often wonderstruck telling, Cabezón Cámara makes it easy to get an idea of the vastness of the Argentinean hinterland before the railroads arrived--"esa casi nada que cruzábamos se iba pareciendo a un cementerio abandonado" ["that semi-nothingness that we were crossing was resembling an abandoned cementery"] she says of one stretch of territory where entire days were spent in the company of weeds and the odd startled hare but without running into "ni una vaca, ni un indio, ni un cristiano ni un caballo" ["either a cow, an Indian, a Christian or a horse"] (34)--but the specificity of the landscape painter episodes is just an appetizer for the full course dinner of artistic license and "licentiousness" that follows. In other words, both Hernández and that "bestia de Fierro" ["brute Fierro"] (125), i.e. the Martín Fierro author and his artistic creation, "that strange gaucho who believed he was a writer" (117), get skewered as characters here--loved the scene where the blowhard Hernández follows up a racist anti-Indian and anti-gaucho rant about civilization and progress by snickerng that the gauchos he knows, "que suelen ser una mezcla de indio y español' ["who tend to be a mix of Spaniard and Indian"], have so far only turned out "unos Habsburgos retacones y negros y analfabetos y desdentados desde los trece" ["some squat, black, illiterate Habsburgs, toothless from the age of 13"] as a result of the attempts to "mejorar la raza" ["improve the race"] through European stock (108). Brutal! Of course, civilization itself receives a similarly scornful treatment once China & Co. break free from convention for a paradisiacal and free love life among the Indians on and around the islands along the Paraná River (note the influx of indigenous language as the novel nears its conclusion). "Bienvenida a nuestra fiesta, mi querida muchacho inglés" ["Welcome to our party, my beloved English boy"] (151) the female Indian leader Kaukalitrán tells her new lover China, the Spanish feminine endings for "bienvenida" ["welcome"] and "querida" ["beloved"] in combination with the use of the word boy anticipating Liz's own same sex sweet nothings as the lovemaking continues: "Liz me hablaba en inglés y me decía tigress, mi tigresa, my mermaid, my girl, my good boy, mi gaucha blanca, my tigress otra vez" ["Liz was speaking to me in English and was saying 'tigress, my tigress, my mermaid, my girl, my good boy, my white lady gaucho, my tigress' again"] (154). Mad fun.
On the second to last page of this insanely high adrenaline memoir, "privately published" in a limited edition of 2,000 copies in 1920 when somebody massively underestimated its popular appeal, Ernst Jünger matter-of-factly relates what it was like to be a survivor of the trench warfare and gas attacks of World War I: "Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me with an even twenty scars. In the course of this war, where so much of the firing was done into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times" (288). His soldier's luck, in combination with good genes, must have carried on well after the war ended because the resilient Tristram Shandy-reading lieutenant lived to be over a hundred years old before he finally passed away in 1998! In any event, reading about what Jünger called his "adventures," it's hard to underestimate just how fortunate he was to make it out of the war alive. His memories, based in part on a diary he kept during the hostilities, are extraordinarily vivid. En route to the Battle of the Somme on the road to the village of Guillemont, for example, Jünger paints a picture which is almost Thérèse Raquin-esque in terms of the sensory overload: "Over the ruins, as over all the most dangerous parts of the terrain, lay a heavy smell of death, because the fire was so intense that no one could bother with the corpses. You really did have to run for your life in these places, and when I caught the smell of it as I ran, I was hardly surprised - it belonged to there. Moreover, this heavy, sweetish atmosphere was not merely disgusting; it also, in association with the piercing fogs of gunpowder, brought about an almost visionary excitement, that only the extreme nearness of death is able to produce" (93). Elsewhere, the "sweetish, oniony smell" of a British phosgene gas attack in or near the woods of St-Pierre-Vaast serves as the Proustian madeleine for this surrealistic turn: "With weeping eyes, I stumbled back to the Vaux woods, plunging from one crater into the next, as I was unable to see anything through the misted visor of my gas mask. With the extent and inhospitableness of its spaces, it was a night of eerie solitude. Each time I blundered into sentries or troops who had lost their way, I had the icy sensation of conversing not with people, but with demons. We were all roving around in an enormous dump somewhere off the edge of the charted world" (114). Ironically or not given all the death and destruction witnessed and then depicted by Jünger, he doesn't come off as either anti-war or as an apologist for the war. There's very little editorializing along those lines. Which isn't to say that he isn't sensitive to the costs of the war to friends and foes alike as his descriptions of the impact of nonstop bombing--"The villages we passed through on our way had the look of vast lunatic asylums" (127); his account of a skirmish with Indian troops, "who had travelled thousands of miles across the sea, only to give themselves a bloody nose on this god-forsaken piece of earth against the Hanoverian Rifles"--"The whole scene - the mixture of the prisoners' laments and our jubilation - had something primordial about it. This wasn't war; it was ancient history" (150); and his remorse over a soldier he killed at close range all make abundantly clear: "Outside it [a dugout] lay my British soldier, little more than a boy, who had been hit in the temple. He lay there, looking quite relaxed. I forced myself to look closely at him. It wasn't a case of 'you or me' any more. I often thought back on him; and more with the passing of the years. The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse; and we must exercise it. Sorrow, regret, pursued me deep into my dreams" (241).