A nearly 40-year-old novel by one of Argentina’s most prolific writers, finally available in translation.
Translating a decades-old novel may seem redundant, but this title is helped by the fact that it’s a historical story and also because it reveals the first blush of talent by Aira (Dinner, 2015, etc.), who remains one of his country’s 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. She’s an interesting character, offering different things to different captors. To Duval, she’s “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 system’s 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 woman’s survival.