In the hands of a writer less skilled in nuanced storytelling, The Woman from Uruguay could have been a tired tale of a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis, led astray and ultimately made a fool by his baser instincts. But in his latest novel, celebrated Argentinian writer and poet Pedro Mairal works through the familiar trope of bungling male sexual desire to reflect more philosophically on the nature of intimate relationships, and the ways in which we can so perniciously lose our individualism in the connections we form. The result is a tender meditation on desire and the fragility of the human heart, translated elegantly by Man Booker International winner Jennifer Croft.
Remorsefully and with a devastating frankness, narrator Lucas Pereyra, a forty-something writer, confesses to his now-estranged wife Catalina the events that unfolded during the course of a day one year ago, when he travelled from their home in Buenos Aires to Montevideo on an important errand. The plan, not without risk, was to bring back fifteen thousand dollars Lucas had earned as an advance on his last book. Picking the money up in Uruguay and then exchanging it in Buenos Aires “at the unofficial exchange rate,” would mean less of the money would be lost to taxes. And Lucas badly needs the money. He is unemployed and drowning in debt, surrounded by a crumbling home, and feeling depressed and beholden to Catalina who has been financially supporting their family of three. Money would bring freedom and solitude for Lucas, the opportunity to “hole up and have a little time to write or simply pretend I was writing.”
Lucas and Catalina’s financial struggles are only a part of a much larger problem, however, one that has everything to do with Lucas’s doubts about fatherhood, his suspicion of Catalina’s infidelity, and his encroaching sense of loss of self within his marriage:
“It terrifies me the way couples become conjoined: same opinions, same degree of drunkenness, as if man and wife shared one bloodstream. There must be a chemical leveling that occurs after years of maintaining that constant choreography. Same place, same routines, same diet, simultaneous sex life, identical stimuli, shared temperature, income, fears, incentives, walks, plans…What kind of two-headed monster gets created that way? You get symmetrical with your partner, metabolisms synchronize, you operate as mirror images; a binary being with a single set of desires. And the kids are there to gift-wrap that embrace and slap an eternal bow on it. The idea is pure suffocation.”
It is in this frame of mind that Lucas travels to Montevideo not only to retrieve his money, but also to meet for a second time a woman named Guerra, whom he had a fleeting yet passionate encounter with at a literary festival two months prior. Guerra, aptly named because Lucas later admits he wanted a war with Catalina, is young and beautiful, and Lucas is flattered by her interest in him. Very little is revealed about the mysterious Guerra in the story because Lucas doesn’t really know her beyond the fantasy version that he acknowledges he has concocted in his mind: “When I saw you today it was almost shocking. After thinking about you so much it was like I had invented you, inside myself.” He knows she has a complicated relationship with a boyfriend, but it does not stop him from making repeated and off-putting efforts to sleep with her, all of which are thwarted in a kind of tragicomedy of errors. Lucas is no gentleman, but somehow Mairal still manages to endear him in all of his flawed humanness to the reader. Perhaps it is because Lucas is all too aware of just how broken he is.
In his desperation for escape from the suffocation of his midlife existence, Lucas opens himself up to danger in Montevideo. He implicitly trusts Guerra, a virtual stranger, and makes numerous foolish decisions that in retrospect he recognizes as such. What ultimately happens to Lucas initially seems devastating, and his shameful return to Buenos Aires reveals that his dalliance with Guerra is far from the first time he has cheated on Catalina. Yet it is in the near complete destruction of his life – fueled in part by a secret that his wife has been keeping – that he ends up finding what he didn’t know he needed: a simpler existence. “If you can’t handle life,” he says, “try a lifelet. Everything had gotten too complicated for me. That whole life we had created together, Cata – it was too big for me.”
The Woman from Uruguay challenges the notion that happiness is to be found in other people. Struggling to maintain conventional bonds that impose restrictions on personal freedom only creates spite and resentment. “We grew up inside this idea of family,” Lucas admits, “that wound up filling us with anguish when we saw the cracks in it.” In the end, this profound novel leaves us with the feeling that when it comes to our intimate relationships, “there has to be another way.”
by Pedro Mairal, translated by Jennifer Croft
Published on July 20, 2021
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.