Updated: May 21, 2020
I have not read “Martin Fierro” the poem by José Hernández that Gabriela Cabezón Cámara uses as a base for her narrative. I do know that with this novel, the author gives China Iron the main character role instead of Fierro. In fact, two strong female characters steal pretty much the whole narrative.
China is an orphan, her father having been killed by Fierro, who then proceeds to marry China and they have two sons before Fierro is conscripted and taken to the Indian frontier to fight with the army.
Rather than be upset, China, who is only fourteen, and has been a slave all her life, is ecstatic. Free for the first time in her life she jumps on board a wagon with a Scotswoman named Elizabeth, who is hell bent on travelling to their estancia to rescue her husband. An “Estancia” is a South American farm or ranch.
For the naïve China, this adventure is more of a cultural earthquake than shock. Everything is new for her, the land, the people, the wildlife and plants. While taking all this in, Liz educates China on the British Empire, and its relentless and insatiable drive for colonization.
As the women travel along together, they become lovers, another chance for Liz to educate China and open her eyes which have seen so little. Another freedom awakened. Both women change dramatically throughout the novel and are completely different characters by the end of the book.
Throughout the book, the author’s descriptive writing is so vivid, the landscape starts to feel like a painting. However, by the last third of the book, this descriptive writing became a little bit much for me, overpowering the narrative. At times it almost feels like a geographical expedition with the author describing the new cultures, plant life, and fauna in minute detail.
The time period in which the novel is set, late nineteenth century, is a tumultuous time for the seemingly never-ending open plains, or pampas, of Argentina. With the English encroaching, their beastly steam engines advancing every day, to the gauchos, the Argentinians, and Indians, locked in never-ending internecine battles.
I did enjoy reading how the Indians work in harmony with the land. How they adapt to flooding and live, to them at least, a somewhat utopic, nomadic lifestyle on the open pampas, juxtaposed against industrialisation and the claustrophobic smoggy miasma covered “modern” cities of Britain.
Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (born 1968) is an Argentine writer. She was born in San Isidro, Buenos Aires, and studied at the University of Buenos Aires. She is best known for her debut novel La Virgen Cabeza which was translated into English by Frances Riddle as Slum Virgin.
She has also published a graphic novel Beya in collaboration with Iñaki Echeverría.