A Writer’s Struggle, A Relationship, and a Cashier Converge in a Novel

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WOMAN FROM URUGUAY
by Pedro Mairal
Translated by Jennifer Croft

Written by Argentine author Pedro Mairal, “Woman from Uruguay” will be comfortingly familiar to Anglophone readers. Told by a Mairal-esqeue novelist whose thoughts do not tend to distract from his personal troubles and obsessions, this book turns out to be a work of autofiction. The tone is also one we’ve heard before: clever, cosmopolitan, slightly fey, vaguely distressed. Or maybe this is the book that Mairal started writing before she got discouraged. Halfway through, he turns a mood piece into a seedy thriller that brings sex, crime, and intrigue. The result is an unfocused, disproportionate story that packs so much into 150 pages.

The story is played over the course of a day. Our hero, Lucas Pereyra, is an unemployed writer in his 40s from Buenos Aires, trapped in a loveless marriage, overwhelmed by the burden of raising children, short of money, and also short on literary ideas. “I was defeated,” he admits early. “I don’t know exactly why or by whom, but I enjoyed it.” All this is vividly told through a series of breaks and flashbacks. The action unfolds far from home in neighboring Uruguay, where Pereyra goes alone to raise a $15,000 advance for her latest book. (He plans to smuggle the money into Argentina and convert it to pesos on the black market to bypass taxes and the negative official exchange rate.) But he has another interest. In Montevideo, Pereyra plans to meet Magalí Guerra Zabala, a much younger and more flamboyant woman he is trying to relate to.

A hindered horse, the possibility of adultery, a pot of money that could launch a booming career: all the elements of a midlife crisis narrative are present. Mairal, the arrogance at the center of the novel, raises the stakes even higher with a confession letter to his wife. Pereyra relentlessly details her date with her lover, whom she calls Guerra, as she tells him her narrative. The contrast between intimacy and betrayal could create strong drama, but Mairal isn’t entirely up to it. For long periods of time, Pereyra more or less forgets about his wife, describing the cityscape like a tourist brochure, and reflecting on a range of topics: international finance and information technology; modern love and nuclear family; Borges and Onetti.

History itself looks awful. When they meet for lunch, Guerra informs Pereyra that her heart is broken; His girlfriend just cheated on him. He’s still trying to persuade her to return to his hotel room. Like college students, they get extremely drunk, then get stoned, then end up half-naked on the beach. From there, the plot rushes into a series of unconvincing episodes—the assault and robbery, a visit to the police station, a statement about Pereyra’s wife. Meanwhile, there are endless thoughts and memories on sex, none of which is glorified. Pereyra remembers her first date with Guerra: “My hand slows down on her hips, touching her stomach, her tan and the side of her bikini thong… just a little further away, it was waxy.” Mairal’s award-winning translator, Jennifer Croft, conveys with some fuss the matey (“fat roll on the skinny man’s stomach”), the cliché (“We were gorgeous, we wanted each other”), and the often vulgar language.

“How did I get involved in this Venezuelan soap opera?” Pereyra asks at one point. Good question. “The Uruguayan Woman” draws on the two energies that power the telenovela genre: misogyny and commerce. Pereyra is a standard literary beta male who objectifies women and ignores the female point of view, but is completely shielded from monstrosity by a veneer of self-awareness. As for money, Mairal realized that writers could now create an account of their lives and find a ready audience, no matter how mundane or casual, with little interest in some kind of sub-fiction, theme, or structure. Good job if you can get it. Originally released in 2016, “Woman from Uruguay” was a bestseller in Latin America.

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