A Surreal Argentine Western in César Aira’s “Ema the Captive”

By Nathan Scott McNamaraDecember 5, 2016

A Surreal Argentine Western in César Aira’s “Ema the Captive”

Ema the Captive by César Aira

“EMA HAD KNOWN that her life was destined to unfold in the midst of strangeness simply because of the century into which she had been born,” César Aira writes in Ema the Captive, a novel that takes place in 19th-century Argentina. Originally published in Spanish in 1981, Ema the Captive is now available in English from New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews. In one scene, a Frenchman on horseback watches the sun setting across the desert and thinks about how someone could write a novel “about those changes of color in the sky and the transformations of the clouds between say, six and eight, so long as the author confined himself to the most rigorous realism.” Aira does a version of that, allowing meticulous realism to represent the overwhelming uncertainty of the frontier. The Frenchman watches a strange form looming on the horizon and asks what it is. The lieutenant replies that it’s their destination, a fort. The Frenchman says, “But it must be enormous!” The lieutenant says, “Not really. You lose your sense of proportion out here.”

Ema the Captive is a surreal Western, in the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, that proceeds as a set of spectacular scenes along the trajectory of a roving wagon train on the edge of civilization. Many of the chapters feature the title character as she rises from a member of a prisoner chain gang to a leader of a pheasant kingdom; others ramble off to follow a Frenchman with a language barrier, a blundering Argentine prince, or a colonel who’s printing wagonloads of money to invent a monetary system. The landscape is unpredictable and various, riddled with bizarre warps in perspective. “Barely out of childhood and alone in the world with her baby,” Aira writes, “[Ema] found herself banished to a dangerous and ill-defined frontier.”

Aira’s characters experience the world around them in a way that’s sometimes horrifyingly dangerous, and other times wacky and charming. Take Hual, for example, a bumbling overprivileged prince who takes an enormous caravan, “almost three times bigger than was normal,” for a retreat to the island of Carhué. Aira writes, “If a wealthy minor chief wanted to travel in the company of all his minions, or transport every last one of his greyhounds and parrots hundreds of miles for a stay for a few weeks, just so he wouldn’t feel homesick, that was his prerogative.” The trip is bound to be an utter disaster, but Hual remains entirely relaxed. Aira writes, “[T]hey were taking so many children, and they stopped so often to drink, or take a siesta, or swim in each river they came to, that it took them five long days to get there.”

Hual’s naïve positivity — his neurosis of “approving every suggestion that was made to him” — provides buoyancy to the trip. Despite his father’s warnings, and in large part due to the bounty of fruit and fish on the island, Hual has a great vacation. The chapter ends with an army of men dragging a monstrous white fish out of the ocean. Hual decides to give the creature as a gift to his half-brother, Islaí, and there’s a celebratory march to Islaí’s camp. Once presented on a bed of leaves, the enormous dead fish appears suddenly sinister, and they prefer not to look at it while eating. “The flesh was delicate but insipid, in spite of which Islaí pronounced all the words of praise that came into his mouth and rolled his eyes as he chewed,” Aira writes. “Then they ate snails.”

The food eaten over the course of this book — the spoils of the wilds of Argentina — provides another example of the menacing otherworldliness of Aira’s writing. There’s a difference between ordering a steak at a restaurant and personally slaughtering the animal, and Aira’s characters know it; they are viscerally and violently rooted to the earth. The characters consume raw guinea fowl eggs and liquor-soaked charatas. Their hunting trips often resemble pillaging expeditions as they, for example, suck the “clump of eggs” from the abdominal cavities of quail doves. One character lives “almost exclusively on milk and the blood of birds.”

Ema the Captive pulses with a frontier mentality, as well as the violence that comes with it. In one scene, a wagon-train commander murders one of his subjects in as creative and casual a way as can be found in literary fiction. In another, a bunch of men raid an enormous gathering of groundhog-like rodents and eat the young raw. (Earlier in the novel, Aira writes, “Almost all the babies that had come with the women had died in the course of the journey.”)

Yet alongside that darkness and savagery, there are also absurd efforts toward civilization, and while some of the characters are acting as founding members of contemporary Argentina, they offer up no pretense of civility or self-respectability. They drink, eat, and gamble too much. They’re self-interested, yet also stupidly jeopardize their own lives. In one of the funniest threads in the book, one colonel works to put paper money into circulation, struggling to ensure that different populations across vast territory will adopt its use. He pays an Indian tribe a heaping wagon full of money to prevent an attack, which offers a sort of analogy for the effort of civilization: let’s pretend we’re not animals; let’s pretend this paper has value. This is the sort of thing that is absolutely absurd, until the point at which it works. Then anything else seems primitive.

“If there is one contemporary writer who defies classification, it is César Aira,” Roberto Bolaño wrote in his preface to Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. That’s significant praise coming from Bolaño, a champion of avant-garde writing and an artist who wrote fiction about reclusive literary movements. Aira self-identifies as an outsider, and refuses the idea that he writes “novels,” a genre that he argues “exhausted itself in the nineteenth century, experienced all of its posthumous transformations in the twentieth century, and today only retains its relevance in ‘commercial fiction.’” While perhaps a bit extreme of a condemnation, it’s easy to see that Aira is on turf of his own, resisting the tradition of a novelistic arc, and fixating with a passionate intensity on the curiosities that cross his path.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is well served by its title: a German painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas takes a pastoral journey across Argentina. This really happened, in the 1830s, and Aira’s account of it reads like a long-form encyclopedia entry written by Chekhov. It’s lush and patient, and it basks in descriptions of the pristine mountain ranges and lakes.

One afternoon, Rugendas is struck by lightning, the least of his problems on this particular day. He then gets his boot stuck in a stirrup, and his panicked horse drags him across the ground. In Aira’s rendition of the tale, Rugendas is assumed dead. But the next day, his friend finds him — “a bloody bundle trailing from one stirrup.” His face and skull have taken the brunt of the damage. But somehow, though “[f]inding him [is] not entirely a relief,” he survives. In incredible pain and turmoil, he continues to live and paint.

The book is just as much a history lesson or a travelogue as it is a novel. It’s a hybrid beast, stitched together by luxurious ways of seeing. One of the ways Aira pulls off this technique — defying genre while pulling the reader closely in — is by committing to an intense level of specificity, detailing everything from the minutiae of the massive, gorgeous landscapes to the grisly particulars of Rugendas’s bashed-up head.

Aira and Bolaño share a publisher in New Directions and a translator in Chris Andrews. Andrews has translated and published seven of Aira’s books and nine of Bolaño’s. In his preface, Bolaño wrote that he doesn’t know very much about Aira, other than that the man publishes “two books a year, at least.” The writers share a prolific approach to writing: Bolaño, for example, wrote most of his massive catalog in just the final decade of his life.

In an interview, the Danish writer Peter Adolphsen asks Aira about the quantity and thinness of his books, and pushes him on his assertion that “the thicker a book is, the less literature it contains.” Aira says it’s simply something he’s noticed by going into bookstores. He conceded that there are “big books that contain lots of literature” — he cites The Magic Mountain and War and Peace — but says he has also noticed that almost every writer who wrote long masterpieces also wrote short masterpieces. He mentions Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and points out that Tolstoy wrote “extraordinary short stories.” Aira says, “With time I reduced myself until I found this 100-page format that is perfect for the type of stories that occur to me.”

Aira writes because he takes pleasure in it — he says: “Even though I write very little, I do write every day and since the year has many days, by the end of it I’ll have 300–400 pages, which in my case means three or four books.”

Asked to describe his writing, Aira said in a 2015 interview with the Guardian,

Once I defined my books as “Dadaist fairy tales”. I don’t know if it is completely correct, but it gives an idea. What is certain is that they are purely literary (“literary toys for connoisseurs” was another description): they don’t have social matter, nor psychological, politic, historic, ecologic matter, nor anything of that sort. They are just ludic forays into the imagination.

You can step into Ema the Captive with confidence that no matter the unusual trajectory of the ride, you’re in good hands. Aira’s novel engages the reader like an imaginative dream of a distant planet. Everything from the small details to the larger narrative arc feels calm and confident. One lovely night in the desert, the characters Gombo and Ema indulge in fowl and wine. Aira writes:

Gombo produced a bottle of cognac and two glasses, which he warmed slightly over the candle before filling them. He took just a sip and got up again, to make the coffee.

“On a night like this,” he said, “there’s no rush to get to bed because you know that sooner or later you’ll fall asleep anyway.”

This scene — with its rich indulgences, its patience — conveys the measured quality of an Aira novel. Ema rolls two cigarettes and Gombo watches the meditative movements of her fingers. Gombo is in a philosophical mood, asking, “Why is it …” and unconcernedly leaving his questions incomplete. They talk about the storm outside their tent. They talk about the impossibility of life. “Shall I roll another?” Ema asks, late in the night. He hesitates, and then says, “One more, before going to sleep.”

“At that moment one of the walls of the hut tore from top to bottom like wet paper,” Aira writes. A cold and brutal storm invades the luxury of their warm interior. This scene, too, contains the quality of an Aira novel. Rich indulgences stand alongside sudden chaos. Ema and Gombo can barely see anything in the fury of the desert storm. “To the fort!” shouts Gombo, after he splits open an attacker’s head with his sword. But then he disappears — presumably dies — into the blind chaos.

Many characters in Ema the Captive fall to the savage environment of the undefined frontier. In a novel in which people are routinely traded, raped, and killed (one soldier even nonchalantly exchanges his wife for a set of horses), Ema endures. Over the course of the book, and without drawing great attention to it, Ema develops significant economic volition and power. She takes on employees and lovers, and casts them away when she’s finished with them. She comes up with a business enterprise, and even kind of makes it work. In a book titled Ema the Captive, Ema turns out to be a Homeric hero. Though it clocks in at just over 150 pages, Ema the Captive feels massive and epic. “You lose your sense of proportion out here,” the lieutenant says, standing in the desert. Losing that sense of proportion turns out to be one of the greatest joys of the book.


Nathan Scott McNamara contributes at The Atlantic, Electric Literature, The Millions, Vox, and more.

LARB Contributor

Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, the Atlantic, the Millions, the Washington Post, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.


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