THE WOMAN OF URUGUAY
By Pedro Mairal
Translated by Jennifer Croft
“The Woman of Uruguay” by Argentine writer Pedro Mairal will be heartwarming for English-speaking readers. Told by a Mairal-esqeue novelist, whose thoughts tend not to stray far from his personal issues and obsessions, it is unmistakably a work of self-fiction. The tone is also the one we have heard before: intelligent, cosmopolitan, a little fairy, vaguely disturbed. Or maybe this is the book Mairal set out to write, before losing his temper. Halfway through, it turns a mood piece into a seedy thriller, combining sex, crime, and intrigue. The result is a fuzzy, lopsided story that has far too much going on in 150 pages.
The story unfolds over the course of a day. Our hero, Lucas Pereyra, is an unemployed 40-year-old writer from Buenos Aires trapped in a loveless marriage, suffocated by the burden of raising children, strapped for cash – and also literary ideas. “I was defeated, he admits very early on. “I don’t know exactly why or by whom, but I enjoyed it.” All of this is recounted blithely in a series of digressions and flashbacks. The action itself takes place far from home in neighboring Uruguay, where Pereyra has gone alone to collect $ 15,000 in advances on his latest book. (He plans to smuggle the money back into Argentina and convert it into pesos on the black market, in order to circumvent taxes and the unfavorable official exchange rate.) But he has another interest. In Montevideo, Pereyra plans to meet Magalí Guerra Zabala, a much younger artistic woman with whom he is trying to have an affair.
A disgruntled patriarch, the prospect of adultery, a pot of money that could jumpstart a spray career: the elements of a midlife crisis narrative are all present. Mairal raises the stakes even higher with the central vanity of the novel, a confessional letter to his wife. Addressing her story to him, Pereyra mercilessly details her date with her lover, whom he calls Guerra. The contrast of intimacy and betrayal could have been a powerful drama, but Mairal doesn’t fully commit to it. For long periods of time, Pereyra more or less forgets his wife, describing the cityscape as for a tourist brochure and reflecting on a range of topics: international finance and information technology; modern love and the nuclear family; Borges and Onetti.
The date itself turns out to be miserable. When they meet for lunch, Guerra lets Pereyra know that she is heartbroken; her boyfriend just cheated on her. He still tries to persuade her to return to his hotel room. Like college students, they get drunk thoroughly, then get high, before finding themselves half-naked on the beach. From there, the plot rushes into a series of episodes – an assault and robbery, a visit to the police station, a revelation about Pereyra’s wife – which are hardly honorable. Meanwhile, there are endless thoughts and memories about sex, none of it is high. From her first date with Guerra, Pereyra remembers: “My hand slows down on her hips, against her stomach, her tanned skin and the edge of her thong of her bikini… a little further, she was shaved. Mairal’s award-winning translator Jennifer Croft relays the matey (“the fat roll on my skinny belly”), the cliché (“We were gorgeous, we wanted each other”) and the often foul language with few fuss .
“How did I get involved in this Venezuelan soap opera? Pereyra asks at one point. Good question. “The Woman From Uruguay” draws on two energies that fuel the telenovela genre: misogyny and commerce. Pereyra is a standard literary beta man who objects to women and ignores the feminine point of view, but is shielded from outright monstrosity by the veneer of self-awareness. When it comes to money, Mairal understood that writers can now craft a narrative of their lives, no matter how mundane or comfortable, into a sort of subfiction, regardless of theme or structure, and find a ready audience. It’s a good job, if you can get it. “The Woman From Uruguay”, originally published in 2016, was a bestseller in Latin America.