Book review: “Ema, the Captive” by César Aira

Argentina, 1800s. A nubile captive, together with her infant child, are government prisoners, taken on long caravan as part of the supplies needed at the military outpost of a sinister colonial world deprived of women. It is just the beginning of the adventurous captivity of Ema, a “white” woman of unknown origins who is bartered and rapted as a concubine among soldiers and the indigenous world of chieftains, living a life of constant pregnancy and adaptation to circumstances that are raw and beyond her control.

It would seem the frontier would be a clash of cultures. It is not. And that is not the only surprise of this unusual narrative of remarkably beautiful prose. In what would also seem a novel of sorrow and suffering, there is none. The indigenous and colonial worlds are both dominated by men with the same needs of satisfying desires both intimate and economic that, although their customs vary, the wilderness of humanity is presented in the narrative almost devoid of emotion, allowing the reader to contemplate the actions without implied morality, in a lawless world where words like rape and murder do not exist. Neither does theft for that matter — be it among men or of the fecund landscape of luxurious mountains, rivers and deserts, filled with the amazing fauna and flora, which Aira vividly and expertly paints, creating a landscape more powerful than the many hands appropriating it and all that it has to offer.

The uniqueness of the narrative lies in its almost experimental writing, inasmuch as it does not quite fit in a category. The world observed through the eyes of Ema drips with poetry so alluring it reverberates her contemplation of beauty despite her circumstances. The author’s command of such poetic prose is also used to insinuate — weakly presenting — certain socio-economic philosophies, especially regarding the value of money in a world that is just discovering how it can simply be printed, yet offering some interesting reflections on exactly what kind of freedom money can buy when Ema also creates her own wealth and success, breeding captured pheasant in a kind of allegory of her own life in this novella about finding freedom in accepting our cages.



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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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