During the early 19th century, when it was attempting to gain independence from Spain, Argentina asserted the existence of its own culture, unique from Spanish or indigenous influences. The most popular genre of early Argentine culture was the gauchesque, a form of lyric poetry that recounts stories of the lifestyle of itinerant horsemen in the pampas. Frequently, these narratives position the gauchos in conflict with indigenous and Afro-Argentine populations, with the gauchos pillaging, raping, and murdering those occupying the land they wish to claim. The popularization of these tales also coincided with the Conquista del Desierto, the state’s expulsion and genocide of indigenous populations, which institutionalized the murderous tendencies of the gaucho. As one of the earliest national patrimonies, the gauchesque (and its protagonist, the gaucho) served as a personification of the country — hypermasculine and untamable. Centuries later, gauchos and their culture are looked back upon nostalgically, as a bygone yet integral part of Argentine identity. In the 21st century, however, Argentines are questioning the centrality of these narratives to the country’s history.
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s new novel, The Adventures of China Iron, represents a broader movement in Argentina to reexamine the foundational fictions that govern the nation’s collective imaginary. The name of the titular character is immediately legible to Argentine audiences in a way that is impossible to capture in English translation. China (pronounced chee-nah) is the Quechua-derived word for an indigenous woman, while Iron alludes to the last name of the gaucho Martín Fierro (from the Latin ferrum, meaning iron). Martín Fierro is a 19th-century gauchesque epic poem by José Hernández that details the life of its protagonist and holds an indelible place in the Argentine canon. Its first-person narration from the perspective of Fierro exemplifies the genre’s lack of diverse voices, with women’s voices being conspicuously absent.
Cabezón Cámara reimagines the tale of Martin Fierro from the point of view of China Iron, the wife Fierro abandoned in order to pursue a life of adventure on the Argentine frontier. The plot develops as a sort of Bildungsroman, with China’s development paralleling that of the nascent country she inhabits. The novel is divided into three sections, each representing a population of early Argentina: “The Pampas” of the gaucho, “The Fort” of the criollo, and “Indian Territory.” In the first section, Iron details her background as the wife of a gaucho, having never ventured beyond her town of origin. As she sets out on her journey in search of Fierro, China joins forces with a Scottish companion, Liz.
The original Martín Fierro focuses on male characters, explicitly excluding women, especially those who are black or indigenous. China Iron inverts this dynamic: though China and Liz set out to search for their husbands, these men never appear as central characters in the story. China Iron also acknowledges those who are implicitly excluded, such as gays and gender nonconformists (especially those who are gender queer and indigenous); due to the institutionalization of Catholicism as Argentina’s official religion, such people were not part of the national imaginary that informs Martín Fierro. In the section dedicated to the land of the gauchos, Liz and China — travel companions who become lovers — discover that they are capable of generating their own pleasure in the absence of men.
Although the rugged masculinity of the gauchos is central to the narrative formation of the Argentine nation, China Iron questions the necessity not only of heightened masculinity but also of heteronormative men themselves. Central to this critique is the character Hernández, the fictionalized author of what would become the nation’s preeminent foundational narrative, Martín Fierro. As Hernández welcomes Liz and China into his settlement, at the beginning of “The Fort,” he brags about his civilizing influence over its gaucho inhabitants. It becomes clear, however, that his form of civilizing includes a repression of traditions, an imposition of rigid rules and work requirements, and a meting out of brutal punishments, all of which have resulted in mass defections, lack of morale, and unnecessary deaths. Hernández is depicted not only as self-important and incompetent, but also as a drunkard who relies on the work of others to advance his own career.
While he brags about the poetry he has written (which would eventually be published as Martín Fierro), it soon becomes clear that he has plagiarized these verses from a gaucho who has since abandoned the fortress. Hernández details his motives to Liz:
But why did you lie about them? I’ve already told you Liz: Argentina needs that land in order to progress. 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? And you are helping us build that nation too.
In this statement, Hernández outlines the impulses underlying the foundational fiction: the necessity of an “other” to serve as a barbaric counterpoint to the nascent Argentine nation. Without this imagined savage Indian, the civilizing force of the criollos has nothing to work toward, no future country to build. Moreover, Hernández implicates both Liz and China in this nation-building project: in communicating his appreciation for their contribution, he suggests that they — and, by implication, the novel’s readers as well — are complicit in furthering this narrative by not explicitly challenging it.
The plot culminates in “Indian Territory,” with the women’s discovery of a utopic society populated by indigenous peoples, along with many of the gauchos and Europeans who had defected from Hernández’s fort. Instead of ending the novel with a gesture toward the development of the Argentina we know today — a nation founded on the expulsion of black and indigenous populations — Cabezón Cámara evokes an alternative form of nation-building. By overtly characterizing the indigenous community as a utopia, she highlights the failures of Argentina to include all its citizens, not just those who are European-descended.
Notably, her depiction never descends into a celebration of the infantilizing trope of the “noble savage,” happily at one with nature, beyond the meddling of pesky Europeans. Instead, her imagined utopia is racially heterogeneous, based on a shared understanding, an arrangement profoundly lacking in the traditional gauchesque. This reinterpretation of Martín Fierro through a feminist, lesbian, postcolonial perspective compels readers to examine critically not only the biases of the myths we celebrate, but also how they seep into our contemporary understandings of nationhood.
The English translation of China Iron, published in the United Kingdom in 2019, was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre worked together to craft a translation that is as engrossing as the original. The collaborative nature of their work echoes the collaborative spirit that is celebrated in the novel’s utopic reimaginings. The story begins with a woman laying claim to her identity, asserting the name China Iron (instead of Fierro), but very little of the action is actually undertaken by China on her own. She is constantly accompanied by her loyal canine companion, Estreya, as well as by Liz, whom she meets in the first chapter. At the novel’s conclusion, China resides in a community where mutual cooperation is paramount — no one can function without the labor, productive and reproductive, of the other members. The final chapter about this thriving community, entitled “I Wish You Could See Us,” ends with a concise phrase that gestures toward the collective future: “And so we go.”
Madison Felman-Panagotacos is a Fulbright-Hays scholar and a doctoral candidate in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at UCLA.