Ema, the Captive
by César Aira (Ema, la cautiva, 1981)
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (2016)
New Directions (2016)
232 pp

Ema, the Captive is the thirteenth Aira book I’ve reviewed here on The Mookse and the Gripes (yes, he’s a favorite, and I just got a review copy of his forthcoming New Directions twofer that contains The Little Buddhist Monk and The Proof). In many of the reviews I’ve written about Aira’s books I use words like “frenetic,” “sophisticated playfulness,” “zaniness.” With this latest translation, though, we go back to Aira’s beginnings: Ema, the Captive is his second book (out of several dozens). This novel, a bit long by Aira’s standards, shows a writer not quite so interested in falling forward through his narrative. Indeed, Aira allows for some deliberate longueurs; even the beginning paragraph is a sleepy march of soldiers through an early morning slumber, and we feel it. Zany? Frenetic? No. The words I’d use to describe Ema, the Captive are “languid,” “meandering,” “pensive.” It reminded me a great deal of another long, historical Aira novel The Hare, which I didn’t really like (my review here). After wrestling with this book for nearly nine months, though, I find it leagues ahead of The Hare and quite captivating even if not among my favorites of his work.

In a nutshell (and it’s hard to describe an Aira book in a nutshell given the layers and layers he stacks in), this book takes us to the other side of the edge of civilization in nineteenth-century Argentina. Without tying itself to Ema constantly, the book recounts Ema’s years of enslavement in this brutal world where civilization itself seems an absolutely ridiculous concept yet one worth pursuing. As terrifying as much of this sounds — and Aira is not too shy to avoid violence and horror — months and years make even this life normal and give Ema opportunities to make something of her life.

Aira’s writing in Ema, the Captive is already virtuosic, and there are glimpses of the Aira I’ve come to know and love through his later work, particularly his willingness to go on whatever tangent suits his fancy. Here is a passage early on that takes us into a side-character’s musings, and I think it showcases his virtuosity and his tangents (and how interesting and surprising Aira’s train of thought is):

The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colors, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility. Why not? A supremely stupid saga; the world was ripe for such a work, or would be by the time he finished writing it. Every evening he observed that clichéd daily chaos with passionate attention, and dreamed. An avid reader of novels since childhood, his favorites had been adventures in wild, exotic locations, and now that he found himself in such a setting, he realized that what counts in the unfolding of an adventure is how the days repeat one another exactly. “Adventures,” he said to himself, “are always adventures in boredom.”

Because Aira allows so many of his characters to have their lofty philosophies voiced, the book is constantly unpredictable. It follows Ema for the most part, but even she is a side character for the first section before coming to the center of the stage.

One of my favorite things about Ema, the Captive is Aira’s focus on creating a world, whether it be a civilized world or some kind of “normal” world in the company of brutal chance or, as emphasized in some of the Indian ceremonies Ema attends, one of “supreme inconclusiveness.” At any moment — more unpredictability — the world can change completely and irrevocably. The sense of riding into the sunset to eternal contentment is a mirage. Aira mimics this with the structure of the book itself. If it looks like Aira is starting to settle down into a narrative with some forward momentum, he’ll suddenly throw the entire thing off course.

It’s not as “fun” as many of Aira’s novels, but Aira’s creative mind is clearly present and fiddling with the relationship between his story and his structure. It took me some time to come around, honestly. It didn’t match my expectations the first time around, and I was disappointed. But stepping back I was able to see how it set its own standards and more than met them.

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