Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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Filed under advice, Aira, travel

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