cover image Ema the Captive

Ema the Captive

Cesar Aira, trans. from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. New Directions, $13.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-8112-1910-5

Chris Andrews%E2%80%99s adept translation of this early Aira (The Musical Brain) novel exhibits the cunning brilliance of one of Latin America%E2%80%99s 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%E2%80%99s 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%E2%80%99s odyssey. Aira gradually widens the scope of the narrative through drifting %E2%80%9Cstorms of thought.%E2%80%9D At times philosophical, he relates distant settings and dire situations with astute observations on humanity. Although this is one of Aira%E2%80%99s 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%E2%80%99s life as she navigates an environment plagued by violence. Never tedious, always thoughtful, Aira%E2%80%99s prose moves with great agility and effortless depth. (Dec.)