Who ain’t a captive?

Ema, the Captive, was César Aira’s second novel and the fourth one read by me. I find Aira somewhat difficult, and I’m not sure how much I enjoyed reading Ema. But since I find him difficult, I tried to do an attentive job of it, and one thing seemed worth watching out for: the nature of Ema’s captivity.

At the time, that struck me as, I don’t want to say stupid, but I didn’t think it was a unique insight. I may have been wrong about that, in a way that reinforces the central absurdity of Ema. Sad!

The novel(la) opens on a wagon train traversing the pampa, dull with sameness of routine and landscape. The monotony is broken after a few pages by a bloody massacre (of viscachas): “It was a lively and even colorful operation, given the relentless monotony of the background against which it unfolded.” You can stop reading here, on page six, because that’s it, that’s the whole thing.

But you won’t.

At this point the narrative is roughly realist. We witness the viscacha hunt by the soldiers, then we’re passed on to the officers, where we find out there’s a Frenchman along on the trip, an engineer who emerges as the protagonist of Ema (which is a bit unexpected, but not without precedent in the history of the novel). It’s a frontier novel, perhaps a Western. Duval, our Frenchman, isn’t doing well out here on the way to Pringles, though he has a good time at stopping point Azul. There, we get our first idea of our destination.

The lieutenant, who had been away from Pringles for almost a year, asked for news of the town, but the others could tell him very little. Although they had all been there at least once, the officers in Azul regarded Pringles as remote and inaccessible, almost like Indian territory.

Pringles is “impenetrable,” and “ever more distant, like a planet drifting out of our gravitational field.” But the wagon train is on its way there nonetheless. Duval contemplates the local fauna while having existential thoughts and daydreaming of Pringles as “the wild and mysterious west…the sacred realm of impunity, that is, of human freedom, the exercise of which was something that he had not been taught in the old world and would have to learn in the forests of America, at the cost of his own dissolution.” More of Duval’s thoughts, I can’t resist:

He was trying to work out, approximately of course, how many breaths he had taken since he was born. He imagined the almost insect-like system of specific muscles activated over and over to draw in and then expel the air. It would not be hard to build a machine that would work like that indefinitely, but what use would it be? Set up, for example, on one of those vast plains they were crossing, it would be forgotten for a thousand years…Though a more artistic solution, he thought, would be to leave something to represent the machine: a stone, for example (anything would do); he imagined it oblong in shape, the size of a large rat…

Okay, now you can stop, right? (And now I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy this book more than I did.) And Ema has still not appeared.

She does on page 41 of the New Directions edition, introduced as the mother of one of the few remaining babies among the convicts in the wagon train; she is breastfeeding and immediately captivates Duval. He asks Lavalle later about the convicts, and Lavalle recites the entire plot of Ema, the Captive in the space of two pages (43-44). We don’t know that, of course, but we do find out that the women convicts are being transported to the frontier to help populate it, as well as to “‘circulate’ in all kinds of deals” as “a form of currency.”

“Could there really be crimes so serious as to merit such a punishment?”

“They’ve committed trifling misdemeanors, not serious crimes. The punishment is inversely proportional.”

“I don’t understand.”

With a grave air, Lavalle inhaled the smoke of his cigar. He declined to explain.

“It’s a commonplace in ethnology: the much-discussed exchange of women. When you see it for yourself, you’ll realize how harmless it is: an innocent spectacle, and rather pointless, really, like everything else.”

We seem to be getting away from realism here. That night, some of the women prisoners are unshackled for the soldiers’ and officers’ pleasure. Ema appears at Duval’s bedroll, despite his having moved it away from the orgy. “Duval knew that she had been sent by the Succubus,” and she puts down her baby nearby before approaching more closely. Eventually (page 56), the party reaches Pringles, and the narrative suddenly shifts to follow Ema, Duval nowhere to be found. And we’re on a different planet.

It is some short time later and Ema is installed in a shanty outside the fort at Pringles, five or six months pregnant by an unknown father and living with a soldier named Gombo. Their exact relationship is unclear: she doesn’t seem to be a prisoner, she comes and goes as she pleases, and she even has a lover. She doesn’t have to do much of anything except be at home when she expects Gombo to be at home and awake and do some basic cooking and cigarette-rolling. We don’t know whether he’s the father of her second child, and he doesn’t seem to mind the existence of her first. Though we know Ema is not a free woman, the scene at Pringles is almost edenic. Ema immediately falls in with the Indians who live in the neighborhood of the village around Fort Pringles, and she drops baby Francisco off with young girls who enjoy playing house while she lolls on the shores of ponds all day, making eyes at sexy painted men. Food is plentiful and lush, with lots of eggs, milk, and blood. And Gombo isn’t working much harder; from the sound of things, most of what goes on at the fort is gambling—and the commander is printing his own money and flooding the countryside with it, so even gambling losses don’t have much sting.

But before long, still heavily pregnant, Ema is captured once again, this time in an Indian raid. She’s tossed across a horse and made off with, a second time a captive. Now she makes her life among the Indians, but in much the same way. She travels for a while, ultimately to a faraway and powerful Indian court, where she is a minister’s concubine. Here too she is allowed to leave apparently as she pleases, and later to “marry” another man. At this point, she has three children, and “she felt herself vacillating, that indigenous feeling.” Her husband gives her two horses to return with her children to Pringles. There, she charms the commander of the fort into giving her an absurd loan of cash (printed on-demand) and land so she can start a pheasant farm.

The final 30 or so pages of Ema show her (pregnant a third time, not counting Francisco) finding Indians to work her pheasant operation, moving with them to the location and setting it up, and giving Pringles’ commander, Espina, a tour of the facilities. He remarks on the cruelty of the pheasants’ captivity; they walk around in their pens like zombies, many needing sedation, as they await or recover from a painful artificial insemination process. Ema brushes these concerns aside more than once. The last thing on the tour are the pheasant baths, where Ema must once again reassure Espina that the birds are not being killed.

“Not at all,” said Ema in a dreamy tone of voice. “Look carefully.”

Then Espina observed the game in silence…He felt as if he were gradually entering a dream or an otherworldly scene. The water made the workers and the struggling pheasants shine. The colonel felt a strange uneasiness growing within him, a disquiet, a sudden desire. This pheasant breeding was child’s play, a game without consequences. It scared him. It was sodomy incarnate. One false step could lead to annihilation.

The game without consequences is an idea that comes up again and again, which is to say, various people are always enacting it. At Pringles, the soldiers gamble absurdly, with worthless money. At the Indian court, life revolves around an etiquette that makes the impossible possible. There is also the exchange of women mentioned by Lavalle, a pointless spectacle enacted as Ema’s life.

Are others besides Espina horrified by it? If they are, I’ve missed it. Duval is one candidate; I’m not sure what to make of the last of his feelings we’re privy to, but the Succubus thing suggests it. The Indians, like Ema, who has learned so much from them, seem fine with the impossibility of life, as they put it, and even the last few scenes are proof—Ema’s farm is worked by young people, in many cases teenagers, many of whom has children of their own, and on the workers’ vacation to caves that closes the novel Ema wanders through caverns as her employees make love. Did I mention she’s pregnant again, and that the workers are able to go away right after the current batch of pheasants hatches, because their whole lives revolve around a reproductive cycle? Well, you get the idea.

Is Ema still a captive? She was a concubine again on her return to Pringles, before she had the idea about the pheasants.

Well, what difference does it make? (Cue Ishmael.)

After finishing Ema, as I frequently do, I read several reviews of it. Engagement with the question of the nature of Ema’s captivity was so poor that some reviewers actually wrote that Ema was “a white woman living tranquilly on the periphery of a European stronghold [who] is kidnapped by a band of natives and sold into captivity.” Several forgot that she was a prisoner before her arrival at Pringles (and thus during her residency there). Aira is apparently so successful that Ema’s captivity really does fall away—which is to say that some people react like Espina, and others do not.

I also didn’t see any consideration of the way both “sides” of the novel represent the same type of sameness of experience, but from the opposed perspectives of Duval, for whom this is a stultifying horror he literally cannot digest, and Ema, who is dispassion incarnate. He (futilely?) seeks the sublime, while she floats from experience to experience. These two perspectives are presented by various characters in the novel as explicitly masculine and feminine. Speaking of femininity, there seemed to be a lot of unexplored territory around Ema’s fertility and the fact that she imports a bunch of pheasants for breeding after being herself imported for breeding. (Sodomy incarnate!)

The idea that “life is impossible” also seemed missing from the bunch. Among the closest we get is Victoria Baena in Bookforum ascribing to Aira’s writing “a nearly absurdist tone.” Darren Huang in Music & Literature does explore the interplay of money, wealth, ritual, and meaninglessness in the lives of the Indians, though I don’t completely buy his analysis.

Christopher Urban in the Hong Kong Review of Books seems to get it a little more when he explores the way Aira “leav[es] readers to ask what it all means,” though he also seems pretty unsure of himself:

Ema, the Captive would seem to invite or even get ahead of this kind of criticism. At one point Ema witnesses an Indian ceremony and thinks it “Something that required a maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” The same could be said for the book itself. It’s as if Aira’s managed to write the novel Duval dreamt about for a month on the pampas, a book solely based on observations of cloud patterns and the changing colors of the sky. “The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colours, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility. Why not?”

Can you believe there was another line that illustrates the point so well? And that’s another thing no one seemed to talk about, Aira’s style, all they wanted to say was the books are short. Not that they contain themselves over and over. Instead, they talk about the “momentum in any number of his books, the ecstatic urge to move forward at any cost.” Forward, ha!

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