In his native Argentina, César Aira no longer shocks audiences with his genre-bending works, surrealist plot twists, or the sheer pace of his output (he's written more than eighty books as part of his fuga hacia adelante, a "flight forward"). New Directions began translating his work into English about a decade ago, and since then, most Anglophone critics have focused on on Aira's formal inventiveness: How I Became a Nun (translated in 2007), for instance, gleefully unravels a traditional bildungsroman plot, beginning with the narrator's faux-somber recollection of her revulsion, as a six-year-old, at the taste of strawberry ice cream. The writer's 1981 novella Ema, the Captive, recently translated by Chris Andrews, is in some ways similar: Ostensibly historical fiction, it also plays with narrative perspective and prefers ruminative philosophizing to immersive historical detail. But this book, about a nineteenth-century woman snatched from her home and traded around the Argentine pampa, is more than a clever thought experiment. It explores ideas regarding the relationship between stereotype, image, and reality that feel especially relevant now. Aira traces this interplay back to the nineteenth century, a foundational era of Argentina's history, when the country was grappling with questions of race and culture that have continued to cast a long shadow over both North and South Americas.
The story begins with a journey across the pampa, the flat, empty, and vast Argentine plains. For the first quarter of Ema, the Captive, we follow a French engineer named Duval. As he accompanies a group of convicts led by soldiers to work at, and apparently populate, the colonial fort of Pringles (which happens to be Aira's own hometown), he has little idea what his task will be. The party includes a number of women, some of them still in their teens, and their small children. At first, Duval's attention is focused on the guards' brutal treatment of the prisoners and women. He is soon drawn to one woman in particular. Then, one night, seemingly of her own will, she soundlessly slips into his tent and sleeps with him. Abruptly and without explanation, Duval drops out of the story entirely, and the perspective shifts to the nameless woman, known from this point on as Ema.
While technically the "captive" of the title, Ema is hardly the virtuous and pure protagonist usually found in stories of the cautiva (female captive). This genre, a classic of Argentine literature, often features a beautiful young white woman who insists on "maintaining her honor" by refusing to have sex with her (likely indigenous) kidnappers, even at the cost of death. In Esteban Echeverría's 1837 poem "The Captive"—arguably the founding epic of Argentine literature—a soldier and his wife are captured by a "band of savages." The wife, María, rescues her husband, but he dies from wounds sustained during the escape back to Buenos Aires; after learning that the Indians have killed their infant son, María dies as well. The death of Echeverría's captives has long been read as implying that European-Argentines could never coexist with indigenous people, that one group must conquer the other. And by titling the work La cautiva ("the female captive") rather than Los cautivos ("the captives"), Echeverría helped to establish a literary obsession with womensnatched away by "savages," with their racialpurity remaining forever in question, even if they ultimately return home.
Aira's Ema is a version of this stereotype, but one stretched almost beyond recognition. At Pringles she is given as a wife, first to an official while he's waiting for his European mistress to arrive, and then to a gaucho named Gombo. During an Indian raid—another classic trope—Ema is seized with her young son, Francisco, and becomes one of the many wives of Hual, an indigenous prince. But Ema is portrayed as no less free with the Indians than she was with the colonists at Pringles. Indeed, as the book goes on, Ema's captivity seems to be continually in flux, no matter who owns her. She may be the "captive" of the title, but that identification comes to seem less important, even ironic. After becoming a concubine in the indigenous palace of Catriel, for instance, she grows restless, marries a zoological engineer, and then finally picks up and returns to Pringles on her own, with no one appearing willing or able to prevent her from leaving.
Aira's descriptions of Ema continue his playful challenge of the cautiva genre's tropes. Prince Hual has to be told that Ema is white: She "didn't look European and was barely different from the Indian women sitting around her." Elsewhere she's said to be "slim and elfin, with her oiled black hair, her Indian eyes," or as having "dark skin and Asian features." "Asian" and "Indian" obviously serve as stand-ins for a generalized, exoticized "other," but here even the indigenous characters have trouble figuring out where Ema belongs. That Ema is nonetheless "categorized as white because of her history," as Aira notes, makes the portrayal of race in the book seem remarkably contemporary. Today, as scholars contend that race is historically constructed, they also understand that this imaginary idea has very real consequences. In Ema, the Captive, this results in a vertiginous play between reality and imagination: At one point, Ema goes to spend a lazy afternoon by the river and leaves her baby with a group of Indian girls "who liked to play at captives all day long." The girls replay the historical events while Ema, too, reinvents the idea of the captive in her own way—turning it to her advantage.
The men Ema encounters, indigenous and colonist alike, are often misogynist and hardly idealized. Ema's response to her captivity, meanwhile, is largely indifference. She excels at taking pleasure in small indulgences. She's a hearty eater, a smoker and drinker, who, while still paired with Gombo, escapes during the day to gamble with her Indian lover. Even as the book suggests an alternative narrative to the female captive in distress, it's not exactly a subversive tale of female empowerment. Ema is just as self-interested, and blasé about the violence and devastation of the frontier, as any other character. Still, by the end of the book, she decides to make a fortune herself, becoming a landowner and launching a massive pheasant farming operation. Ema deflects or brushes off the debris of the frontier chaos without ruminating too much about her own identity within it.
As is so often the case in Aira's works, a nearly absurdist tone pervades the writing, matching Ema's own apparent lack of investment in the tragedy of her plight. Aira himself, in an author's note, confides that he wrote the novel for sport: "I amused myself. I sweated a little. I laughed." This ironic mode is matched by the book's spiraling plot. Here, repetition rules: Indians and colonists raid each other's settlements, back and forth; Ema's own path from Pringles to the Indian forts and back again is also circular.
In an often-cited interview with Hispamérica,Aira described his youthful radical politics and subsequent disillusion: to write novels about politics, he said at the time, "in the end . . . seemed like opportunism." Ema, the Captive nonetheless contains the markings of another historical moment: It was finished in 1978 at the height of Argentina's military dictatorship, a time when, by some counts, up to 30,000 people were "disappeared."
But Ema, the Captive is not a rousing political allegory about abuses of power. It's a slim book, whose descriptions of violence are moderated by its mischievous tone. Its pervasive sense of irony stems from an acute awareness of the way language is used and abused over time. Playing with recycled images, stretching tired tropes until they deform, Aira is fascinated by how defining and describing reality, however absurdly, can end up creating a new reality in that image.
Victoria Baena is a writer and PhD candidate in comparative literature based in New Haven, Connecticut.