Ema, the Captive by Cesar Aira

341667 It’s been over a week since I finished reading Cesar Aira’s novel Ema the Captive, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, but I still don’t know quite what to make of it.

I can’t even recall how, or why, I came to own a copy.  I think I bought it while visiting Los Angeles this past spring at Book Soup in West Hollywood just down the street from The Viper Room on Sunset.  It’s an excellent bookstore by the way; I’m not just name dropping here. Though I am name dropping.

I knew the name Cesar Aira but couldn’t recall why.  The back of the book sounded interesting. A nineteenth century woman whose race is uncertain is taken prisoner by soldiers, forced to serve the captain of a garrison at the edge of civilization where she takes on a series of lovers, soldiers and natives, ending up the head of a business empire the likes of which have never before been seen.

It was an exciting tale, but one that beggared belief.

I don’t know enough about Argentine history to really judge, maybe even to really understand, but clearly anachronistic things started to happen halfway through the book.  They continued, building upon each other as the rest of the story progressed until I had to wonder when we entered magical realism by the time the novel was through.

Just what is Mr. Airas up to, I kept wondering.

Finally, I latched on to the idea that Ema was like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, an African king made a slave by Europeans including a long series of women who cannot resist him. Eventually he leads a slave revolt in Surinam. It’s a terrific book. Maybe Airas was using it somehow, structurally, thematically, in his novel.

I don’t know.

The back cover says that Mr. Airas has published at least 90 books.  “At least”? Does no one know the exact number? I cannot say if this prodigious output has had an effect on the quality of his work since I’ve only read the one book and I’m not sure what I think of it.

The plot is so loose, it feels improvised nearly to a fault, the way Charles Dicken’s early work sometimes feels, the way Oroonoko felt much of the time.  The characters are slightly drawn in Ema, the Captive.  Are they meant to serve more as types than as people? Should this book be read as a parody? As pulp fiction, a take on the jungle adventure story.

The first section features a journey into the wild that reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but the soldiers heading into the wilderness were already fully in the grip of violent madness, as if Colonel Kurtz was leading a journey to a place run by Marlow flipping Conrad’s tale on its head.

So I’m not sure if I liked it. I’m not sure if it’s good. I’m not sure if I’ll read more by Cesar Airas.

I would bet you dollars to doughnuts that with at least 89 other titles to choose from this was not the book to start reading him with.

4 thoughts on “Ema, the Captive by Cesar Aira

  1. “I knew the name… but can’t recall why.” Maybe? I mean, who knows.

    Ema is early Aira, for what that’s worth, published as his, second or third book or something like that. And he did not publish much else for awhile. The wild & crazy idea of 90+ books lay far in the future.

    Some of those “books” are from an Argentine publisher that makes the covers from old cardboard boxes. I mean, the publisher does not recycle, exactly, but just chops up a box, has an artist do something to it, and staples in the pages. I have handled a couple. They are kind of cool, and kind of primitive.

    1. Maybe it was from reading your blog. More than a few books have foudn their way into my TBR stack after one of your posts. I’d love to see some of cardboard books you describe.

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