A Writer’s Struggle, an Affair and a Pot of Cash Converge in a Novel
In Pedro Mairal’s “The Woman From Uruguay,” a plan to smuggle some money into Argentina goes disastrously awry.,
THE WOMAN FROM URUGUAY
By Pedro Mairal
Translated by Jennifer Croft
“The Woman from Uruguay,” by the Argentine writer Pedro Mairal, will feel comfortingly familiar to Anglophone readers. Narrated by a Mairal-esqeue novelist, whose thoughts tend not to stray far from his personal troubles and obsessions, this is recognizably a work of autofiction. The tone, too, is one we have heard before: clever, cosmopolitan, somewhat fey, vaguely troubled. Or perhaps that is the book Mairal set out to write, before he lost his nerve. Midway through, he turns a mood piece into a seedy thriller, bringing in sex, crime and intrigue. The result is an unfocused, lopsided story that packs far too much into 150 pages.
The story plays out over the course of a day. Our hero, Lucas Pereyra, is an unemployed 40-something writer from Buenos Aires, trapped in a loveless marriage, stifled by the burdens of child-rearing, short on money — and also on literary ideas. “I was defeated,” he confesses early on. “I don’t know exactly why or by whom, but I took pleasure in it.” All this is briskly recounted in a series of digressions and flashbacks. The action itself unfolds away from home, in neighboring Uruguay, where Pereyra has gone alone to collect $15,000 in advances on his last book. (He plans to smuggle the money back to Argentina and convert it into pesos on the black market, so as to bypass taxes and the unfavorable official exchange rate.) But he has another interest. In Montevideo, Pereyra plans to meet Magali Guerra Zabala, an arty, much younger woman he’s trying to have an affair with.
A thwarted patriarch, the prospect of adultery, a pot of money that could kick-start a sputtering career: The elements of a midlife-crisis narrative are all present. Mairal raises the stakes even higher with the novel’s central conceit, a confessional letter to his wife. Addressing his narrative to her, Pereyra mercilessly details his rendezvous with his lover, whom he calls Guerra. The contrast of intimacy and betrayal could have made for powerful drama, but Mairal does not fully commit to it. For long stretches, Pereyra more or less forgets his wife, describing the cityscape as if for a tourist brochure and reflecting on a range of subjects: international finance and information technology; modern love and the nuclear family; Borges and Onetti.
The date itself turns out to be wretched. When they meet at lunch, Guerra lets Pereyra know that she’s heartbroken; her boyfriend has just cheated on her. He still tries to persuade her to return to his hotel room. Like college students, they get extremely drunk, then stoned, before winding up semi-naked on the beach. From there, the plot rushes through a series of episodes — an assault and a robbery, a visit to the police station, a revelation about Pereyra’s wife — that are scarcely creditable. Meanwhile, there are endless reflections on and recollections of sex, none of it elevated. Of his first date with Guerra, Pereyra remembers: “My hand slow over her hips, flush against her stomach, her bronzed skin and the edge of her thong of her bikini … a little farther, she was waxed.” Mairal’s award-winning translator Jennifer Croft relays the matey (“the roll of fat on my skinny-guy’s belly”), cliche-ridden (“We were splendid, wanting one another”) and frequently crass language with little fuss.
“How did I get mixed up in this Venezuelan soap opera?” Pereyra asks at one point. Good question. “The Woman From Uruguay” draws on two energies that power the telenovela genre: misogyny and commerce. Pereyra is a standard-issue, literary beta male who objectifies women and ignores the female point of view but is shielded from outright monstrosity by the veneer of self-awareness. As for the money, Mairal has figured out that writers can now work up an account of their lives, no matter how banal or comfortable, into a kind of subfiction, with little concern for theme or structure, and find a ready audience. It’s good work, if you can get it. “The Woman From Uruguay,” originally published in 2016, was a best seller across Latin America.