Absence Makes the Heart Grow: On Pedro Mairal’s “The Woman from Uruguay”

August 17, 2021

In fiction, as in life, desire often operates as a catalyst for change, though not always the change one expected. The Argentine author Pedro Mairal’s novel The Woman from Uruguay, nimbly translated by Jennifer Croft, is an excellent example. The narrator, Lucas Pereya, is trapped between two conflicting desires: to maintain all he has built with his wife, Catalina, with all of its comfortable if boring repetition, and to escape it by starting an illicit affair with an Uruguayan woman he meets at a party.


A middle-aged, underpaid writer, Lucas is mildly depressed. His marriage has gone stale. He suspects his wife is having an affair and resents that he owes her money. He travels from Buenos Aires to Uruguay to pick up a book advance in order to pay his debts, and makes plans to meet a woman, aptly named Guerra (as in war). She has occupied Lucas’ thoughts and dreams since they first met. Lucas confesses to Guerra the hold that she has on him: “All those months I had you in my head and could rewind you, fast-forward you, pause you. I’d open emails you’d send me. You know how you can go over things in your memory, relive them?” However, when the two come face to face, Lucas has no such control over her or anything else. In real life, Guerra has a boyfriend — and may not be who he thought she was at all.


The narrative moves swiftly from Lucas’s bumbling bus and ferry travels through his day in Uruguay. He intersperses the account of his journey with rants about his wife’s new routine of staying out late for drinks with her colleagues, leaving him with their son, Maiko. He worries about his influence on his son, wonders whether he’s giving him enough of his energy as an older dad. In the hands of a lesser writer this might come across as whining or patriarchal privilege turned to narcissism. Addressing Catalina, he says,


You know I adore my child. I love him more than anybody in the world. But sometimes he exhausts me, not so much him as my constant worrying about him. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t have had a kid at my age. It’s a terrible thing to think, but it has filled my life with a fear that I never had before, fear that something will happen to me and he’ll be left an orphan, that something will happen to him, to you.


His vulnerability is palpable, and it’s telling that he calls Maiko his child instead of “our” child. His sense of paternal responsibility for the boy is overwhelming.


The last chapter takes the story forward in time, revealing Lucas’s worry has abated even though his marriage is no more secure than it was at the start. The story ends not with rancor and despair but with a reflection on the real intimacy two people can share, even when the terms of their relationship change. Lucas reflects on his return from Uruguay, again directly addressing Catalina, “In the pause before I heard your voice, I experienced the certainty that I loved you as I continue to love you and as I will always love you, no matter what.”


Their day apart, spent not at all as Lucas imagined, provides the opening Lucas and Catalina needed to talk honestly about their marriage. Mairal skillfully balances Lucas’s teeth-grinding anxiety with humor and warmth, with reflections on the economics of art, the history of literature, video games, and pop culture. The result is a funny, poignant tale — an urgent read for anyone whose heart is ready to grow.


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Jeannine Burgdorf is a writer in Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in Signal House Edition and New Reader Magazine as well as the anthology Writer Shed Stories Vol. 2. Her nonfiction and book reviews have appeared in Quail Bell, Chicago Review of Books, and the INELDA website.