Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Ema, the Captive” as Want to Read:
Ema, the Captive
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Ema, the Captive

3.45  ·  Rating details ·  364 ratings  ·  51 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)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Ema, the Captive, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Ema, the Captive

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Rating details
Sort: Default
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
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
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
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
Dec 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, translation
"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;
Jun 13, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
no me gusta Aira, esto es lo mejor que le leí. sigo esperando un libro de él que sea realmente digno de su renombre. le agradezco su trabajo con la poesía de Osvaldo Lamborghini que, como dice Milita Molina, con eso ya se ganó el cielo.
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
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. S
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.
Carol Peters
Feb 27, 2017 rated it liked it
Strange little book, an imaginary life of South American Indians & some colonials, I enjoyed it & also was sometimes bored & found some of Aira's "intellectual" flights more flighty than parseable. Ema is said to be a "white" woman yet doesn't look white & passes from man to man as directed as if that were as natural as eating chicken one day & pork the next.

No character development. Imagery rules.

Favorite bits:

Birds returning from the west passed overhead, always flying si
Santiago Quijano
Este es un libro extraño, como la mayoría de los libros de Aira. Maneja el idioma con maestría, sí, pero ¿es eso suficiente? Las atmósferas son increíbles, así como la ambigüedad de los personajes. Pero queda la sensación de que algo falta o que el autor es tan inteligente que a uno se le escapa algo que parece ser importante, la clave para acabar de entender finalmente lo que nos quiere decir.
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,
Feb 26, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Esta novela es solo para completistas que quieren leer todo Aira. Esto es lo que pasa cuando se escribe sin plan, una novela aburridísima. Más grave aún que Aira diga que es una novela "gótica simplificada", porque, la verdad, nada que ver. Lo que es es una dilatada descripción de la vida sin propósito de la frontera argentina del siglo XIX. Los blancos beben, duermen, pasean. Los indios también. De vez en cuando hay un malón y se llevan las mujeres. Otras veces hacen de megáfono para que Aira h ...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.
May 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Es el primer libro que leo de César Aira y cuánto lo admiro y lo quiero ya. Disfruté cada página, el mundo de Ema, siempre fresco, sobre un territorio nuevo, real y no, me puso a cuestionar la realidad circundante (la mía); así de intenso es su lenguaje: trastoca el pensamiento y sus alrededores.

Este libro a ratos parece histórico, luego fantástico, mítico, un génesis, es paisaje, melancolía, soledad, una leyenda... pero nunca es una sola cosa. También, claro está, es un viaje (para los persona
María Minnucci
Nov 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"Los indios parecían encontrarse siempre en la calma que sigue a una tempestad del pensamiento. Por eso valía la pena observarlos, para aprender cómo un ser humano puede reponerse de una conmoción que no ha tenido lugar. En una civilización como la suya todo era sabiduría. Al imitarlos, uno crecía volver a las fuentes. La elegancia pertenece al orden religioso, quizás místico. La estética mundana, un apartamiento de lo humano, imperativo. Todo era sexualidad y amor"
Jan 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
One of his better books. Or should I say one of his more lyrical books.
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.
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
May 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2017, world-lit
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
Jun 23, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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.
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.
Beatriz AC
Tal y como el propio autor menciona en la contra tapa que la misma viene a ser una tapa en contra, creyendo que lo leería en una sentada, lo cierto es que sucedió todo lo contrario. Una lectura interesante para entrar en el universo de este escritor, tiene una prosa fantástica pero por poco no logro conectar con las travesías de Ema.
César Antunes
El primer capítulo de la novela que abarca aproximadamente un cuarto de esta, es lo que me resultó más interesante. La perspectiva del francés me resultó muy buena. Después de eso la novela cambia de entorno y cuenta como es el día a día de la vida en el fuerte de Pringles y pierde un poco el espíritu de la primera parte.
Cero conflicto.
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.
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.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Newest Literary F...: Jan: Ema, The Captive (Malaprops Choice) 55 22 Jan 29, 2017 07:12PM  
César Aira (born on February 23, 1949 in Coronel Pringles, Buenos Aires Province) is an Argentine writer and translator, considered by many as one of the leading exponents of Argentine contemporary literature, in spite of his limited public recognition.

He has published over fifty books of stories, novels and essays. Indeed, at least since 1993 a hallmark of his work is an almost frenetic level of