This review should not exist. I should not write it.
Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).
The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.
“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.
Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.
The Wheel Narrative or, Providence (Rhode Island)
César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.
Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.
Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.
Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.
This apparently secondary story erupts with no explanation and suspends the narrator’s perspective—just as he had wanted, when escaping to Buenos Aires—as we tumble into a deeply strange past. This pattern will reoccur thrice more, and our initial assessment of an everyday café scene conflagrates into an array of stories, from sentimental mobsters conducting unseen assassinations to Krishna, the Hindu deity, found living in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. All these stories emanate from, and culminate in, Enrique’s drenching. Patti Smith, in her preface, describes the novel’s structure as a wheel, each spoke another story, all spinning at once.
The desire for a pause, a “temporary withdrawal,” that drives the narrative repeats, again and again, and, as the stories get increasingly deranged, the narrator’s sense of Buenos Aires as uneventful and pastoral collapses. The boring season he wanted devolves into the unalloyed, resplendent chaos of a multifarious Buenos Aires, a fractured urban revue.
Providence never reappears; it fades into the distance as the narrative wanders. The expected story of an American in Buenos Aires, drinking coffee in dull quiescence while listening to tango, falls apart within a network of beginnings. What was present and resolved, made clear and settled by the colonial tropes of tourism, Aira tears to shreds. History just outside a Buenos Aires coffee shop is more convoluted and dangerous than words can explain.
Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.
Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.
Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.
Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.
If literature just confirms what we know, what’s the point?
Scarcity, product of a brutal history of enslavement and wealth accumulation, connects with the patriarchal violence that earth-eating unlocks. Patriarchy itself is a tangible object, with direct, pervasive consequences embedded in the material environment and technologies of human life.
The remnants that survive such cataclysm are only legible to a particular subject, endowed with an exceptional gift. The phantom of state terror haunts Argentina, as do the victims of patriarchal violence—the mourning for those disappeared by each oppressive structure is permanently suspended by the bodies’ absence. At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).
In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.
If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.
Millennial Love Letter
At the very opposite end of the spectrum, Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay (translated by Jennifer Croft) tells the story of Lucas Pereyra, a middle-aged and successful Argentine writer. Lucas travels from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, where currency exchange taxes are lower, to pick up a large advance, in US dollars, from some international publishers.
Like Aira’s unnamed professor escaping his present, Lucas flees a disintegrating marriage and a wife apparently having an affair with a woman. (That her love object is a woman makes this liaison intensely painful for him, despite his own rigorously heterosexual infidelities). He hopes to see Guerra, the titular “woman from Uruguay,” whom he had met, and nearly slept with, at a conference the previous year. A middle-class man’s guilt has him in a chokehold: he has relied on his father’s wealth and his wife’s income for over a year.
Lucas has the emotional awareness of an adolescent. Arriving in Montevideo and retrieving his cash, which he hides in a fanny pack, Pereyra immediately books an expensive hotel room and heads to meet Guerra for lunch, hoping she will happily join him at the hotel. He never asked her if she would be interested in such an encounter, and during the conversation Lucas twice disregards her firm rejections. Too occupied mourning lost orgasms, he’s completely indifferent to the extent of her ongoing trauma, which motivated her to deny his proposal.
As Nicolás Mavrakis has written, Lucas’s is “the frivolous drama of a life sunken beneath the fantasy of an eternal childhood,” overwhelmed by masculinist narcissism, unaffected by the damage he wreaks on the women and children around him. High and horny on the beach while Guerra jerks him off, Lucas is kicked in the side by an anonymous assailant, who steals the new wad of dollars. Guerra then walks with him to report the crime; he begins to worry, without evidence, that she was in on the crime.
The Woman from Uruguay was a bestseller when first published, in 2016. Orsai, a major Spanish-language culture magazine, is now producing a film adaptation, attesting to the novel’s popularity among the magazine’s mostly middle-aged readership. At the time of its writing and publication, Cristina Kirchner’s Peronist government was ending. It was replaced by that of center-right candidate Mauricio Macri, whose electoral success was propelled by a middle class injured by Kirchner’s perceived failure to limit inflation and the dollar–peso exchange rate, as well as the accusations of widespread corruption that characterize most Argentine governments, and broadly protectionist measures including heavy taxes. This exact sense of bourgeois disenchantment inspires Lucas’s idealized journey to Uruguay and infuses Mairal’s novel, top to bottom.
The Woman from Uruguay articulates to a tee the feelings of a bourgeoisie that felt aggrieved and oppressed by a Peronism mostly indifferent to their struggles. Much of that class reacted by voting for the opposition. Many—including some of my own family, as well as Marcos Galperín, founder of Latin America’s biggest tech company, Mercado Libre—moved to Uruguay. At the same time, Lucas’s imperviousness to lasting damage or pain demonstrates the meager stakes of that bourgeois malaise, as well as its relationship to the casual misogyny and homophobia that define him. Despite Lucas’s busy day, very little changes for him: he quickly forgets the money and Guerra and picks up a new gig in radio.
Lucas is clearly a very close approximation of Mairal, and the novel operates as autofiction, a stream of consciousness that turns inward, providing a continuous meditation on experience. Lucas’s reflections never cut particularly deeply or contain much insight—he is the same person at both ends of the narrative. Perhaps the author crafted an uncanny satire of the narcissistic, modern, middle-class millennial man. But it’s hard to find any real critique or evaluation; might the novel’s irony run so deep?
Ultimately, Mairal’s novel stands as a document of the Argentine bourgeoisie, years 2014–2016, though its movie adaptation suggests that it remains applicable today. Compare that to The Divorce, where narrative constantly collapsed inward—like the burning-down school—to undermine traditional narrative forms and evince how those forms often frame Latin America and/or Argentina. Eartheater levels a more explicitly political critique of Argentina’s patriarchal violence and economic inequality, insisting on the power of narrative while questioning its conduciveness to structural transformation. The Woman from Uruguay reconstructs the psychology of the porteño middle-class man, though it doesn’t offer much by way of critique.
An array of geographical, historical categories—Latin America, Argentina, Providence—are at stake when writing stories like these. In many ways, such categories are determined by those centers of power toward which literature is often, by necessity, oriented, and they constrain what can be said about such places. We cannot disregard them completely. Yet we should not deploy those categories as they arrive. Instead, we must critically assess them, turn them over in our hands and scramble them. See what happens when we push back against such assumptions: Do they cave inwards or burst into pieces? Are they what we thought they were? If literature just confirms what we know, what’s the point?
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.