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César Aira: Ema la cautiva (Ema The Captive)

This is one of Aira’s earliest novels, his second, but it shows many of the hallmarks of his later ones. Though set in Argentina, it is in a remote part of Argentina and set over a hundred years ago. It is a world which is completely separate from the real world, with its own rules and own set of behaviours. Landscape is very important. Aira tells a deceptively simple story. It is essentially divided into two parts. The first, seen more or less from the perspective of a French engineer called Duval, tells of a very long journey taking prisoners from Buenos Aires to Coronel Pringles, a then remote town in the Southern part of the country and the home town of Aira. It is not entirely clear why they are bothering as the prisoners are brutalised on the journey and several of them die, in some cases brutally murdered by the guards. The female prisoners are also badly treated, frequently raped by the guards or other prisoners. Many of them have children or give birth on the way, with the children frequently dying en route.

Duval represents the civilised element. He speaks very little Spanish but, fortunately, the lieutenant, Lavalle, is of French descent and has spent some time in France so speaks good French. Despite this, he is still very brutal towards his prisoners. Duval does not adapt well to the journey. He does not like the wild game the soldiers catch for food and has to live on biscuits. Nor is he comfortable riding. It is he, however, who introduces us to Ema. He hears a child cry and turns to look at it. In doing so, he catches sight of the mother, Ema. He asks the lieutenant about her and the lieutenant immediately send her to him and then teases him that she is his girlfriend. Ema and her child spend the night near him but there is no suggestion that there is any sexual relation.

Everything changes when they arrive at Coronel Pringles. The fort is run by a tough commander, Espina. When the section on Coronel Pringles starts, Ema is with a new man, Gombo, and is pregnant. Duval is out of the picture and we now follow the story through the eyes of Ema. She had been with a lieutenant, after arrival, but only temporarily, till his fiancée arrived. She is then handed over to Gombo, who is looking for a wife. At first he is disappointed, as she is very thin, almost childlike in her figure, but he accepts her. She gets on with her life, while he works at the fort. She soon has a lover, despite her pregnancy, an Indian, Mampucumapuro, who visits her or even takes her hunting when Gombo is busy. Meanwhile we follow the relations between the fort and the Indians. It seems very complex. At times they are friendly, even coming to the fort to gamble. At others they are aggressive, attacking the settlements around the fort. Espina a deals with it in various ways. In particular, he prints his own money, at one time in huge quantities, which he then gives to the Indians as well as to the soldiers. What this does to the local economy is not clear but it seems to temporarily placate the Indians.

But there is another raid and Ema is carried off. Initially, we learn little of her but a fair amount of the Indian tribe. They live on an island, and both fish and hunt, seeming to manage quite well. Hual, the chief, likes his drugs and the easy life but seems quite a good chief and maintains generally good relations with his neighbours. Ema is his concubine but gets passed around, as before. Eventually, her current husband allows her to return to Coronel Pringles. Back in Coronel Pringles, Ema takes to breeding pheasants, which she does very successfully. This latter move shows how much she and the others, mainly the Indians but Colonel Espina as well, work in tune with their environment, exploiting it to certain degree but concerned about sustainability.

Apart from Ema’s life, there is no major plot to this novel but Aira tells us an excellent story of a woman who seems to have suffered a lot but carries on with her life, taking whatever it brings her in her stride, adapting to circumstances without complaining. That is, indeed, the theme of the novel, coping with life as best as one can, which is what Ema and the Indians do. It is exotic, colourful – the landscape and weather are lovingly described in all of their beauty – and a beautiful story, something we fill find in later Aira.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial de Belgrano in 1981
First published in English by New Directions in 2016
Translated by Chris Andrews