by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara
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.