Ema, la cautiva (Editorial de Belgrano, 1981)by César Aira
Ema, la cautiva [Emma, the Captive should it ever be translated into English], Aira's first or second nivola depending on whether you care about whether his 1975 Moreira was actually published or was only written in that year, is an ahistorical fiction genre workout that might best be thought of as a sort of conceptual slap in the face to 19th century captivity tales like Esteban Echeverría's La cautiva and 19th century civilization and barbarism discourse like that found in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo. In the unlikely event that I haven't already driven away all squares from this post, please rest assured that I'll try and stick to a description of the captivity story at hand here since I've yet to read Echeverría's work (actually a long poem) and have only read a handful of chapters from Sarmiento's idiosyncratic political biography-as-national ethnography. These literary criticism ground rules now firmly established, I should probably point out that Aira's 234-page historiola, like many of the more visceral moments in his 2000 Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero [An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter] which is also set in some time-warped reconfiguration of the mid-19th century, begins with an apparent nod to the great realist writing of days gone by: "Una caravana viajaba lentamente al amanecer, los soldados que abrían la marcha se bamboleaban en las monturas medio dormidos, con la boca llena de saliva rancia" ["A caravan was traveling slowly at dawn. The soldiers at the head of the march were swaying in their saddles half asleep, their mouths full of rancid saliva"] (7). Before long, the presumably rancid saliva-free 21st century reader, jolted out of his or her city-dwelling lethargy by the immediacy of this atavistic country prose, will learn that the hardscrabble armed caravan consists of a mixed group of soldiers and prisoners sent from Buenos Aires to populate the frontier lands to the south. Ambassadors of civilization! The title character, it turns out, is one of the prisoners through no fault of her own. And the soldiers? "Eran hombres salvajes, cada vez más salvajes a medida que se alejaban hacia el sur. La razón los iba abandonando en el desierto, el sitio excéntrico de la ley en la Argentina del siglo pasado" ["They were savage men, more and more savage as they moved further south. Reason was abandoning them in the desert, the eccentric site of law in the Argentina of the past century"] (12-13). Ema's frontier transformation from forced concubine to happy Indian bride of a warrior whose "entretenimiento favorito era la caza con gases paralizantes" ["favorite pastime was hunting with paralyzing gases"] (160) to a single business woman/ex-captive who rejects civilization in order to philosophize and shoot dice and view snow falling on the Patagonian beaches among the sleeping pill-happy and man-sized fish-hunting "savages" in the south takes up much of the rest of the novel, but why would I want to ply you with information about all that when I could just refer you to the unexpectedly difficult to translate letter that our young author has conveniently left for you on the back cover of his book instead?
Hay que ser pringlense, y pertenecer al Comité del Significante, para saber que una contratapa es una "tapa en contra". Sin ir más lejos, yo lo sé. Pero por alguna razón me veo frivolamente obligado a contarte cómo se me ocurrió esta historiola. La ocasión es propicia para las confidencias: una linda mañana de primavera, en el Pumper Nic de Flores, donde suelo venir a pensar. Tomasito (dos años) juega entre las mesas colmadas de colegiales de incógnito. Reina la desocupación, el tiempo sobra.
Hace unos años yo era muy pobre, y ganaba lo necesario para analista y vacaciones traduciendo, gracias a la bondad de un editor amigo, largas novelas, de esas llamadas "góticas", odiseas de mujeres, ya inglesas, ya californianas, que trasladan sus morondangas de siempre por mares himenópticos, mares de té pasional. Las disfrutaba, por supuesto, pero con la práctica llegué a sentir que había demasiadas pasiones, y que cada una anulaba a las demás como un desodorizante de ambientes. Fue todo pensarlo y concebir la idea, atlética si las hay, de escribir una "gótica" simplificada. Manos a la obra. Soy de decisiones imaginarias rápidas. El Eterno Retorno fue mi recurso. Abjuré del Ser: me volví Sei Shonagaon, Scherazada, más los animales. Las "anécdotas del destino". Durante varias semanas me distraje. Sudé un poco. Me reí. Y al terminar resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo mismo, había creado para mí una pasión nueva, la pasión por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas las cosas: la Indiferencia. ¿Qué más pedir?"
[firmado] C Aira
One has to be from Coronel Pringles and belong to the Commitee of the Significant to know that a back cover of a book is a 'cover that's against something.' To take an obvious example: I know it. But for some reason I find myself frivolously obliged to tell you how this storyola occurred to me. The time is ripe for confidences: a beautiful spring morning at the Pumper Nic in Flores, where I'm wont to come to think. Tomasito (two years old) is playing in between the tables overflowing with unknown school kids. Leisure reigns, there's time to spare.
A few years ago I was very poor, and I earned just enough for a shrink and vacations translating--thanks to the kindness of an editor friend--long novels, those that are called 'Gothic,' odysseys of women, now British, now Californian, that take the usual hodgepodge and set sail through hymen-optic seas, through oceans of passionate tea. I enjoyed them, of course, but with practice I began to feel that there was too much passion and that each new one canceled out all the rest like an air freshener. I gave it some thought and came up with the idea, an 'athletic' one if you will, of penning a simplified 'Gothic' novel. Hands to the task. I'm prone to imaginary snap decisions. Eternal Recurrence was my means. I renounced Being: I turned into Sei Shonagon, Scheherazade, plus the animals. The 'anecdotes of destiny.' I amused myself for several weeks. I sweat a little. I laughed. And upon finishing, it turned out that Emma, my little female self, had created a new passion for me, the passion for which all other passions can be swapped just like money is swapped for everything: Indifference. What more to ask for?"
[signed] C Aira