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Ema, the Captive

3.51  ·  Rating details ·  529 ratings  ·  65 reviews
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, where she takes on a succes ...more
Paperback, 231 pages
Published January 4th 2016 by New Directions (first published 1981)
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lark benobi
I was disturbed by this novel. Sometimes that can be a good thing. I'm not sure whether it is in this case, though.

Ema felt to me throughout, as I read, as a horrific embodiment of a male fantasy. Ema is an ever-youthful, ever-desirable female who is subject to terrible violence (along with her children being subject to it) without her having much of a problem with it. She just passively makes the best of things. Because she is so passive about being carried off with regularity to be raped some
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I finished this book a week ago and have discussed it and mulled over it, and I guess I should just go ahead and write a review! The discussion and deep thinking have had a lot to do with questions of the author's intent. It is difficult to find many reviews in English of the work, in fact all of them are written by men who say nothing about the brutal sexual violence of the situations Ema finds herself in. One even went as far as saying that Aira is describing an "idealized" world that he wishe ...more
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
Recommended to Lobstergirl by: Steve Mnuchin
Shelves: fiction

Ema, "a delicate woman of indeterminate origins" as the back cover explains (she is considered white, although she is the same color as the Indian women, with either African or Indian features), is taken captive from somewhere and journeys across some part of wild Argentina in a wagon convoy with soldiers and other prisoners. The trip is ghastly, the prisoners barely fed, seeming barely human, the food noxious. When one male prisoner is seen copulating with "a being of indefinite sex," an office
I looked forward to reading this work, having very much enjoyed Argentinian writer Cesar Aira's work, How I Became a Nun. Ema the Captive is a much earlier work and I was curious to compare the two.

Ema the Captive is a very different type of book than How I Became a Nun. It takes place in 19th Century Argentina, out in the forests, plains, and mountains. The atmosphere is extremely dreamlike and the writing beautifully lyrical (although punctuated by episodes of shocking brutality). It begins wi
Jan 06, 2017 rated it did not like it
This is the first book I've read by Mr. Aira and all I can say is this book is akin to the Monkey Festival.


Ema, the Captive was an inconclusive read, filled with pseudo philosophical ramblings (from men, no less) about money and existence interspersed with plenty of scenes of smoking, gambling and lazing away your days.

Oh, and pheasant farming. Am I supposed to care about any of that?

The short read was less about Ema than about the strange, distant world she found herself living in
Dec 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: translation, fiction
"life," he said, "is a primitive phenomenon, destined to vanish entirely. but extinction is not and will not be sudden. if it were, we would not be here. destiny is what gives the incomplete and the open their aesthetic force. then it retires to the sky. destiny is a grand retiree. it has nothing to do with the human body's anxious perceiving, which is more kinesthetic than visual, or in any case more imaginary than real. destiny is concerned only with the flower, but the flower has no weight
Sep 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
César Aira's Ema, the Captive is one of the odd Argentinian's finest works. We begin with a caravan of prisoners in wagons drawn by oxen headed to the settlement of Coronel Pringles, several hundred miles southeast of Buenos Aires. We see the strangeness that is Argentina -- indeed much stranger than it is in reality today -- from the point of view of a French engineer. We see miniature dogs that weigh just a few ounces each. There are massive snowstorms. (I don't think it ever snows in that par ...more
Matthew Talamini
Jul 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I have a secret list of words that evoke vision. I should have added to it while reading this, because I kept going, "Oh, that's a good one!" Aira writes very beautifully. He makes Argentina seem like a fantastical dreamland, like Xanadu or Samarkand or El Dorado.

I think this might not be a novel, but rather a lengthy pastoral poem.

I think the key to the aesthetic of this book is that nobody in it ever needs anything. For instance, money is an important part of the book but nobody ever needs it.
Feb 25, 2017 rated it it was ok
Don't know how I feel about this book. Ema, moves around from different "camps", and appears to be a captive, raped, and yet the author wants us to believe she's okay with this and that she's an independent woman who can move to other camps? men? when the mood suits her? I found it very confusing and demoralizing. I've never read anything written by this writer. If this is how he portrays women, how he normalizes them, then I don't know I'd read more. I did enjoy the descriptions of the flora, f ...more
Matt Brown
my favorite from aira that i've come across thus far. ostensibly, it's a straightforward western novel but over time his charateristic plot twists and philosophical wanderings are revealed. it's told with a meloncholic and almost magical beauty that often left me feeling somewhat disoriented. ...more
Jan 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
I fear some day I might run out of Aira to read. Fortunately, every time I turn around there seems to be another one.
John Pistelli
May 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Reading and rereading Wilde over the years, I note a fact that his panegyrists seem not even to have suspected: the elementary and demonstrable fact that Wilde is nearly always right.
—Jorge Luis Borges, "On Oscar Wilde" (trans. Esther Allen)

Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time,
Jan 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
One of his better books. Or should I say one of his more lyrical books.
Einas Alhamali
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is poetically descriptive. Although you keep wondering where the story will go, and whether it will reach anywhere at all, the language is beautiful enough to keep you going.
Andy Weston
Jul 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a type of surreal Western in the mold of the likes of McCarthy and McMurty, a series of spectacular scenes as a wagon train travels through the Argentinian pampas in the 1800s. In the first half of the novel Ema is surviving amongst a group of prisoners travelling between Forts in dreadful conditions, many are barely alive.
But these often horrific scenes, reminiscent of Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, give way to a more gentle second half, as Ema manages to survive,
Nate Hawthorne
Sep 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Probably closer to a 2.5. Couldn't really get into the book. It was interesting, but not captivating. Didn't really care about the characters either way. ...more
Dec 08, 2016 rated it liked it
When I first chose to read Ema the Captive by César Aira, I did not have any idea what to expect. Aira was a new author to me, so I went in to the book with no former knowledge of writing style or subject matter.

Ema the Captive is a good book, it just isn't a style of writing that is my favorite. It wasn't until the end of the novel that I really felt that there was a purpose to the story being told of the main character. The beginning and end of the story were more cogent, but the middle of the
May 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-lit, read-2017
This was a hard one. At first it really bothered me, so much rape and sexual violence written as if it was so normal. And even in the end I'm still not sure if I like Ema, but the writing! And the nature descriptions! I felt like I could hear the Argentinian birds every time I opened the pages.

Ema comes off very passively even though she's the protagonist, she's constantly traded and stolen and captured and sold to different, and she prevails in the end. I'm starting to think that she's always v
Jul 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
I feel like the review that The Millions gave explained my feelings about this book the best – "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."

Ema, the Captive was beautiful in the most primitive way, sensual and raw, matter-of-fact yet deep. Its lyrical observations of the natural world and of the habits o
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Aira’s 1981 novel “Emma, the Captive” does not belong to any “Western” novels. It does deal with colonialism but by the time you think it is about colonialism and its brutality, the storyline goes somewhere else. It may be about vastness and emptiness of the landscape where Indians and settles cope with. It may be about impossibility and boredom. It is a beautifully written (translated) anti-novel.

Indians invade settlers but end up withdrawing with freshly printed money. Almost all the tensions
Jun 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Ema, the Captive" is less interested in plot than in the pure, sensual experience of being. Think of this novel as a vacation to not just another time, but to an entire other concept of time, of place, of existence. The reader becomes the captive, bound in a cage of sights and smells, of tastes, of touch. Aira has crafted a spell here, a dream, that as you read will surround you by the pampas, by the forest, by the men and women who surrender to the pleasures and pains of life. It is a thesis o ...more
Jerry Pogan
Dec 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Another great book by Cesar Aira. It begins with Emma becoming a prisoner and then later being captured all the time suffering rape and other sexual encounters but never seeming to be greatly affected by what she is subjected to. Written in Aira's usual surrealistic manner the descriptive prose is incredible. ...more
Aug 14, 2017 rated it liked it
Aira embarks on an interesting project here: a gothic romance utterly devoid of horror or romance. The result is a laconic pastoral where horrible things happen, but no one (victim or perpetrator) seems to care. Basically, the novel is a simulacrum of a novel that ultimately implies that life itself is a simulacrum.
Oct 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
The story of a woman taken as a slave in 19th century Argentina, passed from soldiers to indigenous tribes, and eventually making her own life. He treats his subject cooly, stripping the narrative of any evidence of trauma, a mark against the book in my opinion. The first 2/3 are a rich and verbose, if disturbing, novella, and the last third goes off the rails a bit, plot-wise.
Dec 12, 2017 rated it liked it
A book set in a world that looks a lot like 19th century Argentina, but the focus is wrong - mundane things seem beautiful, horrifying things are numb, and some times a sequence just happens - with the weight and pacing of how the movies portray a wonderful dream. I'm sure I missed all sorts of commentary on Aira's Argentina, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless. ...more
Feb 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
With some respect to the prolific and celebrated author, this book was not worth my time. It is an excuse to label nonsense and a intermittent story as magical realism or surrealism. A story, or set of stories is not here. To consider it an impressionistic journey is yet another excuse for a spotty or even sloppy piece of work.
Aaron Kent
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017
Aira writes with such facility that you sometimes forget what a master he is. This book contains one of the most pleasing and perfect chapters I've ever read in a novel. It could stand alone as a short story of the highest caliber. His writing has the ability to take one away. ...more
Sep 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Below is a link to one of the more helpful reviews I've found for this book. Aira's always playing with something. This time, it's the gothic novel, femininity, and whiteness.
Rob M. Fierstein
Dec 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
2 1/2 Stars . . .
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: in-translation

My first time reading a César Aira, not too sure what to make of it. It was though at times beautifully written, with some wonderfully poetic lines and imagery.
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César Aira was born in Coronel Pringles, Argentina in 1949, and has lived in Buenos Aires since 1967. He taught at the University of Buenos Aires (about Copi and Rimbaud) and at the University of Rosario (Constructivism and Mallarmé), and has translated and edited books from France, England, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. Perhaps one of the most prolific writers in Argentina, and cer ...more

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