Ema, The Captive by César Aira
The prolific César Aira is a writer of momentum and continuum. He often discusses his work ethic in essays and interviews, explaining how he’s a daily writer and resists editing yesterday’s material. He pushes ahead until he reaches a novella-sized page count and then calls it finished. This method allows for spontaneity and forces Aira to investigate and develop his ideas as they’re committed to the page. There’s hardly any room for overarching organization, and his tight, self-imposed limitations force his hand into what could potentially snap into a kind of instantaneous, literary bonsai tree — a perfectly constrained, organic growth. Each book strives to achieve a raw and unfiltered creative beauty.
This practice explains the “over eighty” books mentioned in the author’s bio, and although it’s not certain if Aira followed these rules for his second book Ema, the Captive (1981), this might also explain the novel’s lack of cohesion and overall clunkiness. Heavily expository and philosophically meandering, there is little sign of any forethought to the novel — those readers looking for a compelling story will be uncomfortably disappointed. Calling Ema, the Captive “improvisational” would be putting it lightly: this reads like the creative output of a non-committal god, bending storylines and structure to whatever whims momentarily have his attention.
But those readers who consider creativity a window into its author’s psyche will be pleased with Aira’s results: Ema, the Captive reads more like a psychological exercise, its story fit more for evaluation than enjoyment.
The novel opens with an overwritten scene of western noir, its prose as purple as hot blood in a cool sunset:
A wagon train was traveling slowly at daybreak; the soldiers leading the way swayed in the saddle half asleep, their mouths full of rancid saliva. With the turning of the season, they had been made to get up a few minutes earlier each day, so they went on sleeping as they rode, league after league, until the sun came up. The horses were spellbound or terrified by the mournful sound their hooves made on the plain, and by the contrast between the shadowy earth and the diaphanous depths of the air.
It’s a wonder how an over-confident writer such as Aira could open a novel with such poor sentences, but perhaps there’s a reason for it: it’s as if he’s erecting an old-Hollywood western village of illusory building facades, hollow structures propped up with wooden supports. He immediately drops his readers into a world of western pulp in South America, for better or for worse (in the author’s afterword he explains his intentions were more to make a western gothic novel, but this is close enough). Upon discovering that his characters are slave-trading bandits who rape and pillage the towns in their path, Aira’s prose is almost forgivable — if Ema, The Captive is a self-conscious twist on men’s adventure stories, rooted somewhere between pulp and gothic, so be it. Latch us to the convoy.
A female prisoner emerges and becomes the subject of a French captain’s infatuations. The bandits reach their destination quickly, and while they’re at “The Fort”, Aira begins to refocus the book entirely on Ema and her life after traveling as a prisoner. Or are these flashbacks, from before her capture? She has a series of lovers, nurses her newborn, and even conceives a third child.
While it appears Aira’s plans are to trace a convoluted timeline for Ema’s life and capture, he drifts towards more exciting and intellectually stimulating ideas (despite their incongruence with the western gothic stylings of the novel’s opening scenes). Aira drops the prison cruelty and introduces ideas about capitalism and animal husbandry, as well as characters who arbitrarily slip into long-winded, philosophical discourse.
The concept of currency for the native tribes becomes a curious, resonant discussion, with repeated mentions that one could always print more money (or raise more chickens) if society becomes economically strained. “Money is an arbitrary construction,” one character muses, “an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as a means of passing the time.” Although this idea is stumbled upon during one of many tangential asides, it emerges as a much-needed theme for the book. This unconventional (mis)-understanding of economics mirrors Aira’s handling of prose: if cornered, he can always change focus and run a new plot through the printing press. Perhaps he’s not an indifferent god after all but more of an economic czar, willing to flood his market with fresh ideas rather than increase the value of what he’s already made.