César Aira’s books often shrug off the shackles of genre, tradition, structure, or sense. They’re also often short. Usually around 100 pages, these novellas are complete in and of themselves. However, readers will most likely leave an Aira text in a completely different mental state than from the one they entered with—such is the challenge and the pleasure of reading him.
Aira’s latest book, Ema, the Captive (128 pages; New Directions; translated by Chris Andrews), is fairly straightforward in substance and story. A 19th-century Western set in Argentina is probably the most succinct way to describe it but to box this book into neatness would be dishonest to its intent. Aira goes to great lengths to paint a living portrait of a time and place replete with war, struggle, brutality, community, and hope. Yet that portrait questions the veracity of the history it presumes to be a part of. (In an author’s note included as a postscript, Aira refers to the book as a “historiola,” and claims to have been struck with the inspiration for it when translating long gothic novels while on vacation.) Irony aside, the novel has been steeped in a kind of mythic dye.
Even as readers toss out all expectations and strap themselves in for what’s to come, there’s one consistency bolting this elusive narrative to the ground: Aira’s treatment of the landscape as character. Even our titular character, Ema, at times disappears for pages and pages as the surroundings are explored. There always exists in Aira’s work a supreme attention and affection for the details painting picturesque vistas for readers to get lost and amazed in while at the same time shoveling the action forward. Take this dizzying sentence from early on in the narrative as we follow a wagon train of soldiers and prisoners:
So regular was the pampa’s surface that, in the course of the whole morning, they encountered only one unevenness, which obliged them to deviate by no more than a few hundred yards from the straight line indicated by the guides: a set of deep ravines produced by some ancient geological disturbance, with walls of white and brown limestone, recently washed by the rain, in which the burrows of viscachas shone like onyx.
Depth and specificity take precedence here, as the sentence itself becomes a pseudo-journey the reader takes, walking along with the wagon train, noticing the deep ravines and viscachas along the way. Not only are we treated to brilliant sensory images, but we also relish in the “ancient geological disturbance,” which hints at some mystery coursing beneath the action of the narrative and the terrain of the landscape—a phrase full of history, legend, and foreboding. Readers can open to pages at random and bear witness to language of this high caliber.
Another truism of the book’s world is the ephemeral nature of the characters themselves. Duval, the Frenchman and outsider who tags along with the wagon train at the outset, disappears altogether with the introduction of Ema. Indeed, the breaks between chapters often serve as palate cleansers, as Aira occasionally shifts perspective altogether, contributing to the disjointedness of the narrative. Readers are never comfortably in one place, much like Ema, who traverses all over the Argentinian countryside with a variety of peoples and tribes as she makes her way to a fort where she will be forced to serve as a concubine. Other characters, such as the colonel Espina, exist only in orbit of Ema. At one point, after Ema has developed a bit of wealth as a pheasant breeder, Espina tours her mansion and operation, blanching at the sight of the graphic and brutal insemination process:
“You don’t think it’s too cruel? he said to Ema as they moved away.
“Everything is cruel,” she said.
Such role reversals are unexpected delights in Aira’s unconventional historical narrative.
Despite being the novel’s central character, Ema remains an obscurity to the reader to the end. Her movements in and around the roles of captive, mother, and entrepreneur aren’t neat captions to describe any one phase of her life. It’s true she does occupy all those roles for distinct swatches of time; however, her knowledge and power are evident despite the more submissive roles we see her in. Sex and motherhood aren’t obstacles or joys to her, but necessities, realities. She remains clinical and removed in her words and actions throughout.
Ultimately, Ema, the Captive creates a world that boldly asks us to rebel against convention, while seeking alternative avenues of thought.