Ema, the Captive  By  César Aira  Translated by  Chris Andrews  (New Directions, Dec 2016)  Reviewed by  Darren Huang

Ema, the Captive
By César Aira
Translated by Chris Andrews
(New Directions, Dec 2016)

Reviewed by Darren Huang

The story of a Homeric return is at the heart of Ema, the Captive, the second of more than fifty novels César Aira has written to date. On the surface, the book’s storyline, set in nineteenth-century Argentina, might seem conventional: a white woman living tranquilly on the periphery of a European stronghold is kidnapped by a band of natives and sold into captivity. She serves as a concubine to various chiefs and magistrates within the Indian kingdom and dispassionately observes their way of life. After an extended period, she returns to her former village and introduces elements of native culture to her people.

But Aira is a sly and ironic writer, and cannot take such a realist plot seriously. In the tradition of Voltaire’s Candide, the novel parodies the romanticized story of captivity in a foreign land by misunderstood but sympathetic natives. In the afterword, which takes the form of a facetious letter to the reader, Aira writes that he intended to write “a simplified ‘Gothic’ novel,” in which he would investigate the idea of the eternal return, that is, the idea that situations and events inevitably and infinitely repeat themselves. But at every turn, Aira’s stylistic choices subvert the conventions of the typical adventure or romance novel. His highly controlled tone is one of supreme detachment, one that neither celebrates nor condemns. In his hands, the atrocities of war are flattened to disinterested reports: “In the wagons, promiscuity reigned, and seemed, like so many other things, on this journey, to waver between the permissible and the prohibited. The elusiveness of the laws in force had been demonstrated in a particularly brutal way not long before.” Both natives and whites speak in a uniform dialect of academic inquiry, as if they were anthropologists dissecting an ancient civilization. In response to a volatile exchange of goods between the Europeans and hostile natives, an Indian speculates in absurd and lofty terms: “ ‘Real money! That’s ridiculous! Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as means of passing the time.’” The most common and sometimes sordid events and rituals are invested with vast profundity or divine significance. When observing a foreign contingent of natives, the Europeans note “their movements were the supreme crown of elegance: each time they lifted a cup to their lips, the choir of angels burst into song.”

It becomes quickly apparent that a philosophical system approaching nihilism underpins the workings of this native culture. The principal belief of this system is that life is virtually meaningless, and that almost all human endeavors are diversions from this sad truth. As such, the amassing of fortune is as fundamental to human existence as anything else, and is believed to be the only endeavor worth anyone’s while. The European colonel of Ema’s village has successfully negotiated the wilderness due to his prescience regarding the natives; he describes the significance of printing currency to Ema: “That was when I understood the importance of setting up a financial system. Until then I had thought that such a system could only be a form of sophistry or deception, one more way of complicating everything and humanizing destiny. But then I realized that it was a necessity: the animal essence of man.” The novel reveals both the natives and the Europeans as fervent believers in capitalism. Their cupidity is so vast, the obsession so total, that one might imagine these capitalists mortgaging their souls to the devil for a bit of wile and business sense. For the natives, printing money has become the primary preoccupation, their raison d’être: “Children learned to use the printing plates before they learned to smoke; old people breathing their last would rest their heads on ink rollers.”

In the plainest possible terms, the arc of the novel traces Ema’s learning and acceptance of this worldview. She has been ignorant of the virtues of native culture, and her captivity conveniently leads her on a path toward enlightenment. Despite the novel’s compactness, her adventure is virtually absent of any tension. There is one brief moment of violence followed by a runny and redundant anticlimax in the form of pastoral scenes of quotidian life among the Indians. Death and disappearance have become incidental. She quickly and painlessly replaces her lovers. She comfortably drifts between tribes like a cultural tourist. Aira affords Ema almost no sense of interiority. Her affection for her children is one assumed and never elicited. In conversations, she functions as merely a reflective surface to illuminate the complexities of other minds. For the most part, she is bloodless, never victim to any passions, except toward the conclusion of the novel, when she has assumed the universal entrepreneurial spirit. She is a stand-in for the author; in the afterword, Aira calls Ema his “miniature self.” She is no more than a cipher, registering and decoding the cultural aspects of native civilization.  Regarding the creation of an unfeeling protagonist, we inherit the authority of the author himself, who writes in the afterword, “And in the end it turned out that Ema…had created a new passion for me, the passion for which all others can be exchanged, as money is exchanged for all things: indifference.” The implication in this, despite its playfulness, is that Ema’s feeling tone or the emphasis on the state of apathy itself is not only deliberate but one of the central organizing principles of the novel.

For the most part, aside from generating wealth, either through the printing of money or the trading of pheasants, the native life is one of repetitions: drinking, smoking, gambling, and other forms of debauchery are constants, and are associated with the gathering or expenditure of capital. They engage in these preoccupations with religious gravity and deliberateness. The rolling of dice approaches the sacredness of a Christian lighting vespers or whispering benedictions. The irony being, of course, that their hedonistic lifestyle is universally treated with the utmost reverence. Gambling itself is reduced to ritual: conducted in the near-dark, in secrecy, and with silence toward the players. And so it occurs to us—though only gradually, both due to the hypnotic nature of the prose and the impassivity of these characters—that Aira is writing us into a place where money has replaced God.

So often, religious devotion goes hand in hand with self-abnegation, if not self-abasement. And this makes it all the stranger that Aira has invested his natives with an anomalously high degree of self-awareness. They vary between two extremes: states of hopelessness and great abandon. In the midst of dissolution, they are visited by moments of areligious epiphany in which they realize the emptiness of their lives’ pursuits. In one passage, a chief among Ema’s captors delivers an incongruously surreal, poetic monologue following his tribe’s capture of a large beautiful fish. This chief, a melancholy and idle man, laments the transience of life: “ ‘The creature, is it not an apparition? It makes me think of the insignificance of life, how excessive it is, too full of things and thereby liable to ridicule.’” Such metaphysical flights reveal these characters to be modern in their contradictoriness, ones who indulge in these forms of leisure despite having been plagued by existential doubts regarding the meaningfulness of their hedonistic lifestyles. They condemn the material life while continuing to lead it. One explanation for this is that in this alternate universe, living in vice is the only way to survive. All this self-interrogation is basically futile. The European lieutenant sermonizes the manner of living he adopted to maintain his fort on the edge of civilization: “ ‘And vice is the key to life. Life has no function, while vice is a function and nothing else, cut off from life. The only purposes life can have are dead. Vice has no limits. Vice is equivalent to knowledge. Vice . . . is immediate, limited, instantaneous, permanent.’” In Aira’s world, vice can appear to be both limited and boundless, both instantaneous and permanent because it is an obsession that surrounds us so thoroughly that our measure of time spent chasing and grasping at it becomes alternately distended and compressed. These characters are always plugging their moments with meaning that is only be created through leisure and trafficking in money.

So encompassing is this obsession that Ema and her villagers demonstrate awe for the natives’ material way of life and take to learning and imitation. There is an anthropological fascination with the peculiarities of native culture: their elaborate body paints, their rituals of pheasant breeding and tightrope walking, and their political system. The Europeans are enraptured with their trappings of wealth: “They wore broad, malleable gold bracelets, to concentrate energy. Their arms and legs were tightly bound with strips of cotton. On their fingers, dozens of rings, which they would remove, as if they were gloves, for a specially effective throw of the dice.” The natives are literally wealth embodied: “But their finest jewels—as they said themselves—were their gestures.” In such passages, Aira’s method is to create a highly charged environment, in which everything acquires symbolic significance. In their observations, the villagers often express the notion that the natives appear nonhuman because they have embraced the material life so completely that they have obliterated thought and everything else aside from appearances. They have made small gods of the indigenous peoples: “Imitating [the natives] was like returning to the source. Elegance is a religious, perhaps even a mystical, quality. The aesthetics of polite society: an imperative departure from the human.” Whether or not Aira intends to make any sort of commentary on the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, this is a clever inversion of the traditional power relations. The natives successfully convert the supposed conquerors to their belief system. The nature of this conversion is not one of force but one of persuasion by demonstration and example. All the native movements and rituals are performances designed to celebrate the essential values of their civilization: superficiality, the ephemeral nature of things, the importance of appearances, and a void at the center, one thinly papered over by debauchery and money-seeking. Among the natives, the finest and most trivial of details are manifestations of their material lives.

Aira’s accomplishment is in his representation of an intricate belief system and its implications. If the novel seems labored at times, it is because, as they are in Candide, Aira’s plotting and characters are forced into service to elaborate a particular philosophical system. The work is an anthropological text disguised as a dramatic novel. In any sort of fiction, this is a gamble that if botched, might risk the work appearing as self-indulgence. It risks becoming what one critic once complained of Nabokov’s most calculated fictions, a “cold achievement,” or a game played for the sake for simply seeing if one can pull off the feat.

Despite the earliness with which Ema was created in Aira’s career, it appears fully realized with its own urgency and odd power. Aira’s rigor, which Rivka Galchen has described as one normally reserved for scientific or philosophical inquiry, remains at odds with his characteristic arbitrariness. Aira writes in a relentlessly forward-looking fashion: he propels forward without revision and improvises to adapt to what has come before. And perhaps this incongruity between rigor and release is reflective of his unique creative process. Analogous to practitioners of constrained writing techniques, Aria inexorably follows certain metaphysical rules during the fabrication of his multitudinous self-contained worlds. Nevertheless, for Aira, such discipline is liberating rather than limiting because it lays the basic mental architecture of his characters, while allowing them the freedom to dream.


Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades and The Kenyon Review