Ema, The Captive
By Cesar Aira
Translated by Chris Andrews
Ema, a captive taken from an unknown place into the edges of the Argentine frontier in the 1800’s journeys through her stange life from one place and circumstance to another, appearing to improve her lot with each transition, evolving from sex slave to housewife to entrepreneurial empress.
This is a wild west story. Though the plot is loose it is both brusk and enchanting, weaving repulsive scenes of grotesque murder, starvation, rape, etc, with exotic, fantastical, and romantic details. It’s all very surreal. I wish I could get a little more into the protagonist’s head because she is god-like, thriving at the very bottom of society. But her enigmatic persona is what makes all the other parts and characters of the story stand out in their detail and hideousness.
An image that struck me profoundly was Ema at her husband’s side, holding his cigarettes to his mouth as he smoked, taking care to follow his breaths. It’s a sultry image that portrays a devoted, passionate wife. In the circumstances of their marriage (she was sold to him), I cannot fathom why she would do such a thing so willingly, frequently, and dutifully. She seems to find some advantage to and feminine identity from her vibrant string of partners throughout the book.
The feminine mystique is a prominent theme here, though the frequent barbaric scenes of rape and other glutinous male behaviors may be a turn off to a sensitive reader. This book is pretty raw, and pretty fanciful at the same time. I loved it because I have a soft spot for imagery and underdogs.