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!

The Hare by César Aira

aira cesar hareIs it particularly difficult to write about César Aira, or am I just out of practice?

Either way, I’ve been having an exceptionally hard time composing a post on The Hare. But it’s August 31, officially the last day of a Spanish(-Language) Literature Month that was graciously extended by a whole second month, and I need to do it.

My last post on Aira, on his miracle cures, was not so positive. But The Hare is magnificent. Its plot is superficially similar to that of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: a Romantically educated European goes to South America and wants to see Indians. In this case, the main character is Clarke, a naturalist and geographer, and instead of painting the Indians, he wants to talk to them.

Specifically, he wants to talk to them about the Legibrerian Hare, a leporid that’s very shy, but when it does come out, it can fly. The reality of the Legibrerian Hare—and pretty much everything else in the Huilliche world—is hazy. The picaresque journey Clarke will go on in search of the hare, or the other things he’s seeking, will teach him the ultimate lesson of life for the Huilliche and Voroga, the two warring tribes whose story he’s invaded:

Clarke had never perceived so clearly the need for the novelesque in life: it was the only truly useful thing, precisely because it lent weight to the uselessness of everything.

Clarke’s whole life is later determined to be the “kind of thing [that] only happens in novels…but then, novels only happen in reality.”

There’s a lot of good absurdist stuff in here for me, but also a lot of good normal stuff. Clarke makes a young friend and they talk and have adventures. He experiences growth by confiding in others and exploring the world. People fall in love and find their lost loves and find their lost relations—you know, just like happens in any good novel.

Early in the novel, one of the Indians tells an anecdote about their leader. He ends it with a joke: “And also, to be truly spontaneous, one would have to say ‘spontaniety,’ wouldn’t one?” The narrator notes carefully:

The joke was different in Huilliche, of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.

Does it? One can only wonder. After all, “[b]ooks should never be adapted. As a reader, you start thinking of all the changes they must have made, and you don’t enjoy the book.” And not only is most of the book not actually written in Huilliche, even though pretty much all the dialogue is spoken in Huilliche, but I also of course read an English translation from the Spanish. What was I saying, again? Something about the absurdity in trying to understand what anyone is really saying?

After all, The Hare is a novel, and novels are a pack of lies.

“The operational tool came from the field of publishing.”

In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, genre is understood as a means to represent the world. Rugendas’s genre is “the physiognomy of nature,” and he believes that if he follows a set of formal rules, his landscape paintings will become accurate representations of the world he observes.

Aira Cesar Miracle CuresThere’s no painting in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and it may appear at first glance that there’s no art. But attentive readers may remember there is a performance at the end of the novella—and that it’s meant to construct a representation of reality.

The plot of the novella…well, to be honest I am no longer certain. I read Miracle Cures several weeks ago, and I didn’t care for it—unlike An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter before it or The Hare after it. It seems charming enough, and I believe it’s just a quirk of personal distaste. But the plot’s not all that important, because what’s important is what Dr. Aira thinks is happening, and that’s this: he knows the “miracle cure,” the panacea that can save any life, and he’s finally been induced to use it for the first time, after years of theorizing and mockery.

The miracle cure is quite simple. If, in this world, X is going to die, then the miracle “X lives” is excluded by reality. But what if it weren’t? What if, instead, Dr. Aira rounded up every fact about the universe—alles, was der Fall ist, as it were—and then excluded the ones that excluded X’s living?

Just as Dr. Aira’s theories are getting really out there, (not-Dr.) Aira lays this on us:

[I]t was a titanic task, for the listing of the facts was merely the qualifying round before carrying out the operation itself: the selection of the concomitant facts, tose that have to be set aside in order to create a provisional new Universe in which “something else” could happen and not what was upposed to happen. By the way, these exclusions and the resulting formation of a field that would serve as a different niverse had an antecedent: nothing less than the Novel itself.

Oh. Well then.

That’s not quite the end of (Dr.) Aira’s tricks, and he must go on to dance his own alternate universe into reality to enact the cure. He’s developed specific methods of doing this, and the dance is a formal one, however chaotic it may appear to those watching from the outside. Instead of painting he has movement, and instead of the key elements of a landscape he has all the facts in the universe.

One might have thought the space of representation at his disposal was going to get overcrowded, that it was going to start to get difficult to keep inserting more screens. But this didn’t happen because the space wasn’t exactly the one of the representation but rather of reality itself. In this way, miniaturization led to its own amplification. Like in an individual big bang, space was being created, not getting filled, through the process, hence within each pom-pom an entire Universe was being formed.

(Pom-pom? What? I know.)

There’s too much to really explain here, and explaining it would just be like explaining a joke anyway, and the whole small book is not much more than that (but a pretty elaborate one). And with that out of the way I can start thinking about The Hare instead.

“An order was implicit in the phenomenal revelation of the world…”

I am way behind the times in reading César Aira. I could have worked through a (tiny) shelf of his tiny novellas by now, and perhaps should have considering my love of the form. But I have finaly got under way, with An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

rugendas_aldeia-dos-tapuiasThe landscape painter, Johann Moritz Rugendas, is a genre painter. His genre is the landscape, more specifically, “the physiognomy of nature, based on a procedure invented by Humboldt. As you can see from the Wikipedia link above, this part is “real.” Humboldt, of course, is also real, perhaps real-er—Aira has not latched on to his life, requiring of it an episode fit for a novella. I have not read every bit of writing on An Episode in the Life by any means, but I’ve been surprised not to see any of Rugendas’s paintings reproduced elsewhere. Both of these depict Brazil as opposed to Argentina, where An Episode in the Life is set, but one does include Native Americans, others of whom are significant in the novella.

Back to genre. Aira gives a simple and brief disquisition on the value of genre itself as Rugendas and his fellow artist and friend Krause are discussing history and art.

He suggested, hypothetically, that, were all the storytellers to fall silent, nothing would be lost, since the present generation, or those of the future, could experience the events of the past without needing to be told about them, simply by recombining or yielding to the available facts, although, in either case, such action could only be born of a deliberate resolution. And it was even possible that the repetition would be more authentic in the absence of stories. The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead, a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. According to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.

Rugendas_-_Barbacena_Caminho_para_as_MinasUseful, that is, in “understanding how things were made,” which is, for Rugendas, the purpose of stories.

I don’t know why, but it always seems a bit uncomfortable when writers so successfully meta-analyze not only what they’re doing, but also what the reader is doing. Of course, whether this passage is actually relevant to Aira’s project (whatever that might be—I certainly do not know yet) or only to Rugendas’s remains a mystery to me.

Soon after this, Rugendas has a bit of really terrible luck that will leave him severely disfigured. Essentially, his face is torn up and tentatively pieced back together, resulting in a grotesquerie of misfiring nerves and uncontrolled muscle spasms. Krause cares for him studiously, but has difficulty looking at his face, not because it is ugly but because the tools of Rugendas’s face—the features, the planes, the muscles, the expressions they come together to create—are broken.

To create a story, choose some available facts, follow a few rules about how they can be put together, et voilà. Replace the facts with nonsense and break all the rules, and you are left with a man whose speech does not match his expressions, whose feelings do not match his face. His life is based on the ultimate faithfulness of representing landscapes according to their physiognomy, but his own physiognomy has been altered to make him unreadable.