Empty Words

In 2013 Juan Pablo Villalobos wrote about Mario Levrero for Granta’s Best Untranslated Writers series, stating that, even before he had read him, “I knew he was a ‘strange’ writer, unclassifiable, with a boundless imagination, who was creating one of the most intriguing, thought-provoking bodies of work in the Spanish language.” Six years later we finally have one of Levrero’s novels, Empty Words, available to us in English thanks to translator Annie McDermott, who similarly describes the author as an “uncategorisable writer who refused to be bound by rules or conventions, and for whom ‘the only thing that matters in literature is writing with as much freedom as you possibly can.’”

The novel itself certainly suggests a writer who is not interested in rules or conventions, but potential readers should not assume that this makes the work in any way ‘difficult’. In fact, its strangeness is companionable, even homely, perhaps because it is mostly set in and around Levrero’s home. In an introductory note, the author explains that the novel consist of two texts intercut:

“One, entitled ‘Exercises’, is a series of short handwriting exercises, written with no other purpose than that. The other, entitled ‘The Empty Discourse’, is a single, unified text that’s more ‘literary’ in intention.”

Of course, we must never entirely trust an author’s note: just as by interspersing extracts from ‘The Empty Discourse’ among ‘Exercises’, Levrero makes a mockery of the idea it is a ‘unified text’, so too should we mistrust the claim that the latter has ‘no other purpose’. Even in describing the process by which the novel was created, Levrero seems to be deliberately setting the unconscious against the conscious mind, humorously entitling his conscious (that is content-filled) text ‘The Empty Discourse’. Levrero begins with a further disclaimer:

“My aims at this stage of the therapeutic endeavour are fairly modest. To begin with I’m going to practise writing by hand. I won’t be attempting calligraphy, but I’ll at least try to manage a script that anyone could read – myself included, because these days my writing’s so bad that not even I can decipher it.”

However, he is soon commenting on the pull of his conscious mind:

“I’m getting distracted again and paying too little attention to the handwriting and too much to the subject matter, which is anti-therapeutic…”

He is also distracted by the outside world:

“Yesterday I only managed three and a half lines of exercises and then I was interrupted and had to stop.”

However later he concedes, “The problem isn’t the demands of the outside world even though I often think it is, but rather my attachment, or commitment, to those demands.” When the discourse begins to infiltrate the exercises in Part Two, rather than the philosophical tract we may have been expecting, we find simply that outside world, and in particular the story of Levrero’s dog:

“The discourse then has been filling up with the story of the dog.”

Although he goes on to say that “the story of the dog could be a symbol of the real content of the discourse, which for some reason it’s impossible to see directly,” he is accepting that his own vision is indistinct, not simply the reader’s. Just as in the exercises the conscious mind is superimposed on the unconscious mind, so here the situation is reversed:

“Today the topic of the dog has been thrust upon me once more…”

This is perhaps inevitable given the process Levrero describes:

“When I started writing this, my idea was simply to recover the form of an existing discourse and wait for its contents to be revealed as I went along.”

The two texts naturally begin to create a dialogue which in Part Three becomes a monologue as Levrero returns to his exercises but later also to the story of the dog – perhaps an admission that the separation is impossible.

All of this, however, does not really give a sense of the reading experience which I found as hypnotic as the repetitive exercises he describes. These provide a pulse, a rhythm which runs through the text, their artificial nature ironically enhancing the reality of everything else Levrero tells us. Even more astoundingly, they produce the character development we might expect from a traditional novel in the most unexpected way. Thankfully Annie McDermott tells us that a further Levrero translation is one its way (The Luminous Novel – “a 450-page prologue explaining why it was impossible to write the book itself”). Personally, I can’t wait to renew my acquaintance with this astonishing writer.

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2 Responses to “Empty Words”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I like the sound of this Grant – I’m in favour of books that play with the whole concept of writing!

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