A china (think chee-na, not the country, and certainly not the outbound US President’s pronunciation) in Argentina is “someone’s woman”. But in this novel, it is one of the names of the narrator, who variously goes by China, Josephine Star Iron or Tararira. “My real name?” she says, “Well, I didn’t have one.” These names she has collected from the people she meets. Iron is an Anglicisation of her husband’s name, Fierro, as in Martín Fierro, the hero of Argentina’s celebrated national epic, and in this reworking, its original creator. Star comes from the puppy China adopts, Estreya; Josephine the name given to her by Elizabeth, a Scottish woman newly arrived in Argentina to make her fortune. And Tararira, from the Tehuelche word for a thin freshwater fish with tiger stripes.
China is born into poverty (“as much a lack of ideas as anything else”) on Argentina’s pampas, an orphan, married off to the brutal gaucho Fierro who won her in a game of cards. By the time she’s 14 she’s had two sons. When Fierro is conscripted into the army to fight Indians on the nation’s expanding frontier, she runs away with Elizabeth who is looking for her own husband, and they set off in a wagon across the pampas. As they travel, Elizabeth teaches China about the world, and China’s horizons expand exponentially like the plains they cross. “Up until that point my life had been absent somehow,” she realises. She takes on new identities, at first role-playing as Elizabeth’s younger brother to avoid suspicion, but later embracing gender fluidity. “To leave,” she says, “You have to become another person.”
There are few clues to when the novel is set (only the blurb and authors’ note make it explicit: 1872). The clearest come in the second part, when China and Elizabeth arrive at the fort commanded by José Hernández, the author of El Gaucho Martín Fierro, which he has just sold to publishers in the city. But in this version he’s actually poached the poem from the eponymous gaucho, who has also run away from his brutal command. The gauchos, hyper-masculine unruly cowboys, are being domesticated by the spread of progress and industrialisation, a way of life coming to an end.
But Cabezón Cámara’s novel flips this script entirely. Not only is it told by the wife of Fierro, who gets only a few dismissive lines in the original poem, but the deeper into the pampas China journeys, the queerer things get. Her and Liz become lovers (a thrilling line: “I wasn’t sure if that kiss was a British custom or an international sin”; another: “I wanted to be both the berry and the mouth biting into it”), queer characters proliferate. And at last, when Liz and China find a new home among Indians beyond the frontier, they find a queer utopia where traditional gender and relationship rules are simply an irrelevance. China, now identifying as two-spirit, takes multiple lovers. They work one month out of three, and spend their days fucking, making art and tripping on ‘shrooms. They even sleep among blankets of flamingo feathers.
Superficially, it may seem like the Indians are being treated as a blank canvas to paint a queer fantasy, continuing the erasure of colonisation. But I think it may be a little more complicated than that. China and Liz’s journey across the pampas is full of celestial light and endless horizons, but in reality they are crossing a graveyard, the bones of massacred Indians emerging when it rains. The Indians that they join are a loose alliance of displaced peoples; they are ultimately pursued north to the Paraná to create a new way of life in the ever-changing wetlands. And there’s additional poignancy in the novels closing lines, “We know how to leave as if vanishing into thin air: imagine a people that disappears”. It was during the 1870s that the Argentine government embarked on the Conquest of the Desert, a campaign to establish control over the Patagonian desert which saw at least 1,000 Mapuche killed and another 15,000 displaced. Becoming invisible can also be powerful; the Indians’ disappearing act is the seed of survival and resilience.
The writing is joyful, funny, luminous. Cabezón Cámara conjures the pampas ecosystems in all their richness, the ñandús (the emu-like rheas) sprinting across the flatlands, the networks of burrows underneath the surface created by vizcachas and cuys (guinea pigs), the evocative ombú trees squatting like giant umbrellas over the plains. We experience the thrill of China’s world expanding, from inside her head. Here she is discovering tea, and succinctly summarising the perils of globalisation:
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.
Like the light that suffuses the pampas, this is a novel of mutability, of the shifting meanings of words. A wagon can be a boat, a home, an island; an entire nation can be conjured out of nothing. By the end of the novel, China has become the light, blasting through the rigid strictures of society.
Gay rating: 5/5 for queer themes, gender fluidity and graphic queer sex – this book is queer as fuck