Christopher Urban reviews the latest translation of prolific Argentine writer César Aira who wrote but never revised, producing more than 90 books.
César Aira, Ema the Captive (New Directions, 2016), 128pp.
Argentine novelists César Aira has only recently achieved cult-like status outside of his homeland, thanks in part to the dozen or so books put out by the invaluable New Directions. By maintaining a routine of writing every day and never revising, Aira has published prolifically—one or two books a year—totaling to date “more than ninety.” An inveterate improviser, he writes himself in and out of corners, making yesterday’s output work with todays. The result of this fuga hacia adelante technique (flight forward) has yielded an astonishing body of work, with its seemingly impossible combination of high and lowbrow, from “Proust to Ren & Stimpy,” as he himself once claimed in an interview.
Perhaps because he’s written about the idea of a novel being born into the world as a miracle in itself (The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira), we can be forgiven for thinking of his unique books as just that, tiny miracles, or “individual Big Bangs.” Along with the more mundane aspects of everyday life, inside Aira’s books readers encounter miracle workers, flying rabbits, and gigantic blue slugs—or will they? Nothing’s ever certain with Aira except for uncertainty itself. Even something simple like falling asleep, as described in the opening sentence of Conversations, can’t be taken for granted: “I no longer know if I ever fall asleep. If I do, I remain outside of sleep itself …”. With a literary range and versatility possibly unmatched in contemporary writing, Aira may channel the elegance of the naturalists Alexander von Humboldt in one book, only to switch gears and rival the great surrealist Boris Vian the next. As Aria’s new book demonstrates, his prose can be as viscerally violent as something like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and then later evoke a state of childhood innocence as effortlessly as Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book.
With his idiosyncratic tendencies towards elements of the absurd and fantastic, it may often be lost that Aira can also be incredibly insightful politically. Consider him on taxes: “…No wealthy person has ever become poor from paying them.” (Conversations). On honesty: “In principle, telling the truth and lying require the same amount of effort, so why not tell the truth, without omissions or ambiguities? If only as an experiment.” (An Episode in the Life of a Lands cape Painter). On politics: “It is the speck of dust on which the rock of eternity rests.” (Ema, the Captive). On blockbuster movies: “Just enough originality to justify making the movie, but not too much to scare off the audience.” (Conversations). And on traveling: “I don’t think traveling is worth the trouble if you don’t bring your life along with you… It’s paradoxical, but a journey is bearable only if it’s insignificant, if it doesn’t count, if it doesn’t leave a mark.” (The Seamstress and the Wind.)
The latest César Aira novel, Ema, the Captive, actually the author’s second book, is just now being published in English more than three decades after its original publication. Chris Andrews’s translation retains the deceptively simple and poetic rhythms of Aira’s native prose: “They hunted armadillos and echidnas in the caves.” Like The Hare and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Ema, the Captive, is set against an historical backdrop of the unruly pampas in 19th-century Argentina. And much like The Hare, Ema also begins with a well-meaning and highly educated, if perhaps doe-eyed protagonist. In this case, a Frenchman named Duval, who joins a caravan of soldiers transporting human cargo to the shared destination of Fort Azul. The young Frenchman, an engineer by profession, daydreams along the journey, thinking of the world through numbers and patterns, always trying out new calculations, like how many breaths he’s taken in life, or the population of frogs in a certain area. Here, the incredibly monotonous plains plays tricks on the minds of the soldiers, like mirages in a desert, just as the flatness of Aira’s prose allows him the space in which to work his magic on readers:
“So regular was the pampas’ surface that, in the course of the whole morning, they encountered only one unevenness, which obliged them to deviate by no more than a few hundred yards from the straight line indicated by the guides.”
From the beginning, Duval registers his dismay at the horrific violence he encounters; the sheer barbarism into which the soldiers have allowed themselves to sink revolts him. One man slashes off another man’s genitals with a saber after he catches him copulating with, well, it’s not exactly clear, “a being of indefinite sex.” Duval, in this long opening chapter, serves as a stand-in for the reader, who, like him, is thrown into this dangerous, lawless wilderness. He introduces us to the prisoner Ema, whom he quickly grows infatuated with, though readers hoping for a serious love-interest at this point might be confusing the book for another Emma. It’s a testament to Aira’s masterful authority that he gets away with what happens next, for, after 50 pages, nearly a quarter way through the book, he discards this apparent main character of the novel. Duval’s role ends as soon as we’ve grown accustomed to his way of seeing things. We leave him wondering, as he himself ponders, what will happen to him out there “at the edge of the world?”
Presumably, what happens to him as he restlessly searches for the “sublime” would resemble a more conventional, old-fashioned adventure story, like the kind Aira devoured in his youth. As for what actually unfolds over the remaining pages? It might best be described as an anti-gothic novel, devoid of passions, as the the author’s afterword attests. Aira confesses to having made a living translating gothic novels for many years, and after spending so much time with this source material, where the innumerable passions of the female protagonists, to his mind, cancel each other out “like air fresheners,” he decides to write one of his own, a simplified version stripped away of all passions. The result is the creation of Ema: “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my miniature self, had created a new passion for me, the passion for which all others can be exchanged, as money is exchanged for all things: Indifference.”
This motif of indifference is key to unlocking a deeper appreciation of the novel. Both the book and the character of Ema resist the conventional norms of the captive storyline. She doesn’t try to break free of the Indians, or hopelessly pine over the loss of her husband, nor, for that matter, the absent father of her child (perhaps for good reason?). She doesn’t so much as complain as she’s forced to play the cruel role of concubine, moving from one minor king or prince to the next. She doesn’t seem to have any desires at all, except for a couple of wrinkly old maps that “set her dreaming” and a vague desire to meet a famous king, who’s rumored to be visiting. But even then, she’s in no hurry. Ema simply takes life as it comes with the equanimity of a saint.
With so much focus on this epicurean (in the stoical sense) way of life, there’s not much drama in the novel, other than the opening section, where Ema’s makes love with a lieutenant in broad daylight. Rather, the narrative propulsion comes more from external factors presented in extraordinarily rich prose, than the interior thoughts of its characters. What pleasures the book affords, and there are many, lie in its descriptions of the bleak and desolate landscapes, the starry constellations at night, the ever-changing clouds and atmospheric conditions, and animals who, thanks to Aria’s gentle touch, come fully alive in haunting ways. His gift for imagery will stay with readers for a long time:
“Something on the ground caught her eyes: a crushed parrot, wafer-thin, as if an enormous weight had pressed down on it. Those clean and brilliant colors against the snow made it one of the strangest things she had ever seen.”
The tranquil depiction of the Indians in the novel merits reading the book alone. Ema observes their way of life: “Etiquette of time, the license of eternity. Vision and rest. The sleepy sound of water. That was what they lived for.” The Indians pass the days smoking, fishing, gambling, sleeping, drinking, printing their own colorful currency (perhaps on a printing press built by Duvall?), painting themselves up in bright dyes, and watching manatees mate beneath a waterfall. They also speak with a cool sophistication reminiscent of Donald Barthelme’s urbane dialogue: “Real money! That’s ridiculous! Money is an arbitrary construction, an element chosen purely for its effectiveness as a means of passing the time.”
Despite the violence and gore, disappointments and melancholy, Ema’s fate’s not as harsh as readers might expect. By the end, she takes up pheasant breeding and perfects it to a science. The methodological way that she approaches and carries out this entrepreneurial task of hers mirrors the ways in which Aira himself exhaustively treats the material—in nouveau roman-like fashion. One afternoon, a neutral observer watches squeamishly as one of Ema’s Indian workers mechanically extracts some semen from a male bird and separates it into “little globular balls of sugar”, then holds down a female pheasant, pries open the vagina and says, “here’s the oviduct.”Afterwards, the observer asks Ema if she doesn’t think the procedure is a little too cruel? She doesn’t. “Everything is cruel,” she says with indifference.
This long section detailing the pheasant breeding, at times tedious (though in a hypnotic way), may also make the reader squeamish. And yet, what’s most extraordinary about the ending, despite everything she’s experienced, is the solid sense of self that Ema gains through it all. In five years, she hopes to have a farm of 40,000 pheasants, giving her the self-sustaining population necessary to render obsolete those cruel breeding practices. Ema may not be a rock, but she’s far from the “tiny, dark deranged cloud,” that Duval describes her as earlier in the book.
Which isn’t to say that the book itself doesn’t seem to float up in the air like a cloud once it’s over, leaving readers to ask what it all means. It reminds me of what W.G. Sebald said of Robert Walser, another writer of the miniature, “(his) prose has the tendency to dissolve upon reading, so that only a few hours later one can barely remember the ephemeral figures, events and things of which it spoke. Was it a lady called Wanda or a wandering apprentice, Fraulein Elsa or Fraulein Edith,” and the list goes on: “… a stone urn, a suitcase, a pocket watch or a pebble?”
Ema, the Captive would seem to invite or even get ahead of this kind of criticism. At one point Ema witnesses an Indian ceremony and thinks it “Something that required a maximum of attention while rendering attention futile.” The same could be said for the book itself. It’s as if Aira’s managed to write the novel Duval dreamt about for a month on the pampas, a book solely based on observations of cloud patterns and the changing colors of the sky. “The resulting novel, a report on atmospheric colours, shifts, and flows, would be the apotheosis of life’s futility. Why not?”
Christopher Urban has written for the Paris Review Daily, The TLS, LA Review of Books, The Millions, and elsewhere.