Pedro Mairal inspires a literary trip through the River Plate Basin
The Buenos-Aires-born author of La Uruguaya – one of the best-known names in current Argentine literature – shares his vision of the geography and the travels so prevalent in his novels.
Your novel La Uruguaya has crossed borders and become a best-seller in many countries, including Spain. When you write, do you think about a universal reader?
Yes, I think about a universal reader, from a human perspective. I try to look very closely at the reactions and the consciences of my characters to the point I can almost see their emotional DNA. When you reach deeply into someone’s heart, it becomes a text that creates a kind of collective identification. When it comes to language, though, I think about a local reader, not a universal one. I do not neutralise my Spanish so that it can be understood everywhere. I think it would kill its expressive capacity. Montevideo is a very important element and the Uruguayan character plays an important role, even in the title.
Do your novels touch on travelling?
Yes. I find travelling very interesting as a topic. Travelling through big spaces, the movement of the landscape with the cataloguing of details that appear to be incidental, but that are linked to the flow of consciousness and the associations of the character who is travelling and looking. Travel always has to do with transformation. In La Uruguaya, the main character travels to Montevideo for a day and returns transformed. In the book, he tries to explain to his wife what it was that happened to him on his trip there and back, the stupid thing he’d done and why his life changed when he crossed the Rio De La Plata. Did he cross through the looking glass and come back different?
Is there a mental map when you frame your novels?
There is an area, as Saer would say. Now, looking back at my books with some perspective, I notice that in general I talk about the Rio De La Plata Basin. From the Amazonian heat that comes down from the murky waters of the Paraná, through the coast, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, to Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It’s the area I know. There’s something that seeps away through that estuary. Something dissipates. I’m interested in that fall, that draining away. It has a side that is dark and also metaphysical. A fearsome river that, when you look at it, has no shore opposite.
What about Buenos Aires – your city, and the location of El Año del Desierto – inspires you?
A feeling of timelessness, of fleetingness. Borges says he feels time more in these changing spaces, new spaces, where there was once barren land, then a barnyard and then a house than in the thousand-year old towers of Europe made of immutable stone. Every time I cross an avenue in Buenos Aires, I feel that the city has been there for very little time and that, one day, it will cease to exist. Suddenly, I see the sky. As the tango Sur says: “San Juan and Boedo, and all the sky...”
Do you see Buenos Aires as a literary city?
Yes, totally. It’s the city of Borges, of Piglia, of Cortázar, of Arlt... You walk through it and you enter the syntaxes of these authors. There are neighbourhoods that I’ve totally associated with their texts, as if I were walking more through their stories and novels than through the actual street. The city is mapped with literature. It could almost be reconstructed from the books. However, as Buenos Aires is constantly changing, you have to keep on writing it.
There is an extraordinary tradition of novellas in Latin American literature. Which writers have influenced you?
In terms of novellas, I like La Invención de More by Bioy Casares and El Coronel no Tiene Quien le Escriba by García Márquez, but what influences me the most is the synthesis of the poetry of people such as César Vallejo, César Mermet, Neruda, Giannuzzi, Watanabe and Cisneros. It’s a way to link oneself to Spanish using the very strength of the spoken language itself. It has a grass-roots origin you can see in other great Spanish poets including Quevedo and Lorca.
From the current scene and the one of your generation – the 1990s – in Argentina, whom do you admire?
I like what Luciano Lamberti, Samantha Schweblin, Selva Almada, Fabián Casas, Cucurto, Julián López, Cabezón and Leila Guerriero are doing. I’ve noticed that, fortunately, the focus of the Argentine narrative – previously very urban and with a heavy Buenos Aires vibe – has been changing towards imaginings of Argentina’s provinces that are not idealised. These move from charming to sordid and then become violent without warning.
Could you recommend three books set in Argentina that would be ideal to read before visiting?
Misteriosa Buenos Aires, by Mujica Láinez, El País del Humo, by Sara Gallardo, and Turistas, by Hebe Uhart.
Images by James Rajotte