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Ema the Captive

Ema the Captive

by César Aira, Chris Andrews (Translator)

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Ema The Captive, César Aira’s second novel, is perhaps closest in style to his popular An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare
In nineteenth-century Argentina, Ema, a delicate woman of indeterminate origins, is captured by soldiers and taken, along with with her newborn babe, to live as a concubine in a crude fort on the very


Ema The Captive, César Aira’s second novel, is perhaps closest in style to his popular An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and The Hare
In nineteenth-century Argentina, Ema, a delicate woman of indeterminate origins, is captured by soldiers and taken, along with 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, where she takes on a succession of lovers among the soldiers and Indians, leading to a brave and grand entrepreneurial experiment. As is usual with Aira’s work, the wonder of the book is in the details of customs, beauty, and language, and the curious, perplexing reality of human nature.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Chris Andrews’s adept translation of this early Aira (The Musical Brain) novel exhibits the cunning brilliance of one of Latin America’s most critically acclaimed authors. In 19th-century Argentina, Ema is transported to a frontier fort as a government prisoner. Later, during an attack on the fort, native tribesmen abduct Ema. She then spends years roaming indigenous kingdoms as a captive and a concubine. The story of Ema’s adaptability and perseverance evolves into an exploration of conflicts between human development and nature. The book succeeds in its rich, often tangential descriptions of Ema’s odyssey. Aira gradually widens the scope of the narrative through drifting “storms of thought.” At times philosophical, he relates distant settings and dire situations with astute observations on humanity. Although this is one of Aira’s more conventional novels, the book still demonstrates his playful and spontaneous style. Characters are often introduced and not given a name or description until much later, tones can shift dramatically in a single page, and the sense that anything could happen is present in every paragraph. The result is a substantive novel that moves quickly and often feels improvisational. This unpredictability aids the narrative by mirroring the instability in Ema’s life as she navigates an environment plagued by violence. Never tedious, always thoughtful, Aira’s prose moves with great agility and effortless depth. (Dec.)
The Millions
“"Everything in Aira has that Mad Scientist feel to it."”
Michael Greenberg - The New York Review of Books
“Aira’s works are dense, unpredictable confections delivered in a plain, stealthily lyrical style capable of accommodating his fondness for mixing metaphysics, realism, pulp fiction, and Dadaist incongruities.”
Nicolás Guagnini - Artforum
“Aira’s literature is but a parody of inventiveness, and at its core is an amazing degree of penetrating and unrelenting critical reflexivity.”
Maria Moreno - Bomb
“"Cesar Aira's body of work is a perfect machine for invention."”
Diego Baez - Booklist
“"Aira's novel delivers a truly unique contribution to literature."”
Laura Pearson - Chicago Tribune
“Uncanny imagination a la Calvino.”
Rivka Galchen - Harper's
“Aira's works are slim cabinets of wonder, full of unlikely juxtapositions. His unpredictability is masterful.”
Los Angeles Times
“Unsettling and elegant parables.”
Thomas McGonigle - Los Angeles Times
“"What a gift: to look forward to reading a new Aira novel from New Directions every year for the rest of one's life."”
Mark Doty - Los Angeles times
“"Aira is firmly in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and W. G. Sebald, those great late modernists for whom fiction was a theater of ideas."”
Andrew Irvin - Miami Herald
“"south America's answer to Haruki Murikami."”
Marcela Valdes - NPR Books
“"Outlandish B-movies fantasies are all part of the game. His best-known works are nonsensically hysterical. To love Cesar Aira you must have a taste for the absurd, a tolerance for the obscurely philosophical, and willingness to laugh out loud against your better judgement."”
Robyn Creswell - Paris Review
“A Lampoon of our need for narrative. No one today does megafiction like Aira.”
Joe Gallagher - Ploughshares
“Genius. Cesar Aira is a deconstructed Kafka; a compact comprehensible Roberto Bolano obsessed with the frightening nonsense of civilization.”
Megan Doll - San Francisco Chronicle
“Irreverent inventiveness...without analogue in contemporary literature.”
Michael H. Miller - The American Reader
“"A quixotic chemist."”
Cristopher byrd - The Believer
“Aira stresses the sublime without falling back on the props of magical realism.”
James S. A. Correy - The Denver Post
“Cesar Aira is wild. The laws of gravity do not apply.”
William Skidelsky - The Guardian
“"One of Argentina's leading contemporary writers."”
Tess Lewis - The Hudson Review
“Cesar Aira is the energizer bunny of Latin American literature.”
Jacob Mikanowski - The Millions
“"His novels are eccentric clones of reality, where the lights are brighter, the picture is sharper, and everything happens at the speed of thought."”
Marcela Valdes - The Nation
“"Cesar Aira is Argentina's greatest living author."”
Chloe Schama - The New Republic
“A distinctive hallucinatory style, which blends together reality and fiction, the waking world and the dream world.”
The New York Review of Books
“"Aira seems fascinated by the idea of storytelling as invention, invention as improvisation, and improvisation as transgression, as getting away with something."”
Benjamin Lytal - The New York Sun
“"Aira oversteps the bounds of realism, forcing the world to live up to his imagination."”
Natasha Wimmer - The New York Times
“"Exhilarating. Cesar Aira is the Duchamp of Latin American literature. Aira is one of the most provocative and idiosyncratic novelists working in Spanish today and should not be missed."”
Patti Smith - The New York Times Book Review
“"Aira's cubist eye sees from every angle. the stories in "the Musical Brain" exhibit the continuing narration of Aira's improvisational mind. his characters - whether comic-strip ruffians, apes, subatomic particles or a version of his boyhood self - enter a shifting and tilting landscape of events that unhinge our temporal existence and render it phantasmagorical yet seemingly everyday in the unfolding. His matter-of-fact approach, accepting even the most outlandish episodes, suspends disbelief and encourages one's own sense of displacement, of being released from the commonplace. Hail Cesar!"”
Michael Upchurch - The Seattle Times
“"Aira delivers one surreal unraveling of reality after another that proceeds paradox by paradox into psychic realms."”
The Wall Street Journal
“"Argentine author Cesar Aira is an exquisite miniaturest who toys with avant-garde techniques. His work has drawn comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino for its gleeful literary gamesmanship and stories-within-stories."”
Michael Eaude - Times Literary Supplement
“"Cesar Aira's writing has the freedom of improvisation, but his thought is informed by a coherent if highly personal matrix of concepts."”
Scott Esposito - Tin House
“This prolific Argentine writer has inspired a cult following.”
Patti Smith
“I get so absorbed by an Aira novel that upon finishing I don't remember anything. It's like having a complex cinematic dream that dissipates upon awakening.”
Roberto Bolano
“"Once you start reading Aira, you don't want to stop."”
Justin Souther
“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.”
Lucas Iberico Lozada - Paste Magazine
“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.”
Boston Globe

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.

Morten Høi Jensen - LA Review of Books
“This sidelong way of looking at Kafka is uniquely rewarding, eschewing the organizing and narrative principles of biography just as Kafka himself so often eschewed the organizing and narrative principles of fiction.”
Mark Haber - Lithub
“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.”
Juan Vidal - NPR
“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.”
Sergio Chejfec - 4Columns
“"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."”
John Gibbs - ZYZZYVA
“Ema, the Captivecreatesa worldthat boldly asks us to rebel against convention, while seeking alternative avenues of thought.”
“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.”
Music & Literature
“Despite the earliness with which Ema was created in Aira’s career, it appears fully realized with its own urgency and odd power. Aira’s rigor,
which Rivka Galchen has described as one normally reserved for scientific or philosophical inquiry, remains at odds with his characteristic arbitrariness.”
Alena Graedon - The New Yorker
““Ema” is as inventive and aphoristic as Aira’s best works.”
Library Journal
Distinguished Argentinian author Aira, a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2015, here offers what he calls a "'simplified' gothic novel," inspired by the books he used to translate for money. But there's nothing simple about this grandly written take on the captivity narrative. It opens in 19th-century Argentina with a group of soldiers making their way to a frontier fort with crammed-together, barely fed captives in tow. One soldier explains to a startled Frenchman with the convoy that these white women are mere tokens of exchange on the frontier, taken away from home for the smallest misdemeanors. Among the captives is young Ema, with her baby, and when she arrives at the fort she's given to a drunken officer named Paz. Ema is, however, tougher than she looks and trades around men herself, eventually establishing a bird-breeding enterprise that allows her to thrive. VERDICT An enthralling portrait of a time, a place, and one resilient woman that a wide range of readers will enjoy; refreshingly, Aira never writes the same book twice.
Kirkus Reviews
A nearly 40-year-old novel by one of Argentinas most prolific writers, finally available in translation. Translating a decades-old novel may seem redundant, but this title is helped by the fact that its a historical story and also because it reveals the first blush of talent by Aira (Dinner, 2015, etc.), who remains one of his countrys most nimble practitioners. This languid exploration of a life lived in slavery is set in the late 19th century; the title character is a young mother who's captured on the road by a group of rough-hewn soldiers in the company of Duval, a French engineer bound for a remote fort. Aira creates a bit of literary alchemy by opening the book with the soldiers rather than their captive and then letting Ema completely hijack the narrative; by the time the novel ends some years later, she has fully captured the imagination of her creator and somehow inhabits a world of her own choosing. Shes an interesting character, offering different things to different captors. To Duval, shes a tiny, dark, deranged cloud, while to subsequent lovers and husbands, she appears very differently. She is protective of her children, including her young son and two subsequent little girls. But Ema also remains largely aloof as a character, merely the medium through which Aira spins his poetic, languorous tale. What Ema mostly wants is to see the world for what it is; she possesses a desire to grasp the secret of the present, to penetrate the eternal unity of life and see the systems undulating veil. Appearing in a story that's largely about lawlessness and casual sexuality, Ema has a fierceness that makes her compelling. Aira is part of a long tradition of revising Argentina's "authentic" history, but his immense talent makes that process seamless to readers. An elegant, almost ethereal story of one womans survival.

Product Details

New Directions Publishing Corporation
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Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Nominated for a Neustadt Award and shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina, in 1949. He has published at least ninety books.

The poet Chris Andrewsteaches at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, where he is a member of the Writing and Society Research Center. He has translated books by Roberto Bolaño and César Aira for New Directions.

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