In nineteenth-century Argentina, Ema, a delicate woman of indeterminate origins, is captured by soldiers and taken, along with her newborn babe, to live as a concubine in a crude fort on the very edges of civilization. The trip is appalling (deprivations and rapes prevail along the way), yet the real story commences once Ema arrives at the fort. There she takes on a succession of lovers among the soldiers and Indians, before launching a grand and brave business— an enterprise never before conceived—there in the wilds. As is usual with Aira’s work, the wonder if Ema, The Captive emanates from the wonderful details of customs, beauty, and language, and the curious, perplexing reality of human nature.
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.
Despite the earliness with which Ema was created in Aira’s career, it appears fully realized with its own urgency and odd power.
—Music & Literature
Ema is as inventive and aphoristic as Aira’s best works.
—The New Yorker
[César Aira’s] gift for imagery will stay with readers for a long time.
Ema, the Captive creates a world that boldly asks us to rebel against convention, while seeking alternative avenues of thought.”
Aira’s crossings (of temporality, genre, aesthetic language) are always surprising, captivating; they make us seek out formulas to describe their effects. Critics try to do so constantly. But Aira is always moving on to some other place, safe from any category.
One of the Argentine master’s oldest works, Ema is also one of his most memorable. César Aira is a creature of seemingly endless invention.
—Juan Vidal, NPR
His latest book to be translated, Ema the Captive, is not only one of his earliest books—it may be his finest. As such, it also works as a perfect introduction to the Aira universe. The world of Ema is lush and fantastic, but never overbearing; the reader is immersed in a landscape still teetering on the edge of innocence, awash with animals and scents almost impossible to imagine in our modern times. From body-painting to lantern-lit caves to the mating of manatees, the world that Ema—and the lucky reader—inhibit is wondrous and new, even if it’s the imagined past.
—Mark Haber, Lithub
You can step into Ema the Captive with confidence that no matter the unusual trajectory of the ride, you’re in good hands. Aira’s novel engages the reader like an imaginative dream of a distant planet. Everything from the small details to the larger narrative arc feels calm and confident.
—Nathan Scott McNamara, LA Review of Books
César Aira is the undisputed master of the short philosophical novel—and he manages to churn out a new one every few years. Like all of his books, Ema, the Captive is an ideal place to start reading Aira. This story of an Argentinian woman’s time as a captive concubine is a powerful novel worth reading ASAP.
—Lucas Iberico Lozada, Paste Magazine
In this magical little Frisbee of a novel by the prolific Argentine, a kidnapped woman seduces her captors in a fort at the edge of civilization, turning the tables on their power.
Ema, the Captive is a gentle meditation on the natural world in its grotesqueness and its beauty, humanity’s place within it, and the effect that human progress has had on both. With his usual incredible attention to detail and in measured, lucid prose, Aira somehow turns this tale into a page-turner, the kind of feat only he could accomplish.
Aira’s novel delivers a truly unique contribution to literature.
—Diego Baez, Booklist
Aira’s literature is but a parody of inventiveness, and at its core is an amazing degree of penetrating and unrelenting critical reflexivity.
—Nicolás Guagnini, Artforum
His novels are eccentric clones of reality, where the lights are brighter, the picture is sharper and everything happens at the speed of thought…. You don’t know where you are or what you are looking at, but the air is full of electricity.