by Mario Levrero
translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
Coffee House Press, 122 pages
reviewed by Ashlee Paxton-Turner
Mario Levrero’s Empty Words is no ordinary novel. Organized as a series of handwriting exercises, Empty Words offers a look inside a novelist’s mind as he attempts to improve himself by improving his handwriting. Originally published in 1996 in Spanish, it is Levrero’s first novel translated into English. Annie McDermott, who introduces English language readers to Levrero, has translated other works from Spanish and Portuguese, and her translations have appeared in many places, including Granta, the White Review, Asymptote, Two Lines, and World Literature Today.
At first blush, however, Empty Words appears to be an unusual work to translate because it is ostensibly less of a narrative and more of a meditation on language itself. After all, it is structured as a series of handwriting exercises. But it becomes clear rather quickly that translation does not hinder the reader’s ability to appreciate Empty Words because that meditation on language and the shape of individual words creates a narrative of its own. Words do not exist in a vacuum, and the narrator’s efforts at writing words without meaning is futile. Both the shape of the letters and the words those letters form convey meaning. As Empty Words has semi-autobiographical undertones, it is ultimately the perfect introduction to Levrero for readers of English who might have otherwise remained unfamiliar with him and his work.
Levrero was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. He died there in 2004. Levrero has been referred to as the Kafka of Uruguay, possibly because his first novel, The City, published in 1966, was inspired by Kafka. In fact, Levrero once said that The City was “almost an attempt to translate Kafka into Uruguayan.” Levrero also claimed that he “didn’t realize it was possible to tell the truth” until he read Kafka. But despite such high praise, Levrero himself tended to shy away from such recognition, often avoiding publicity altogether. Further, as Annie McDermott put it in her translator’s note, he denied the existence of any literary career.
But Levrero does have a literary career, and Empty Words, through its series of handwriting exercises, showcases a talent for probing the innerworkings of an individual’s mind while writing about something ordinary and mundane: penmanship, handwriting. The handwriting exercises form the core of what the unnamed narrator, a novelist and writer, terms “graphological self-therapy.” As explained to the reader from the outset, the theory behind graphological self-therapy is that “by changing the behavior observed in a person’s handwriting, it may be possible to change other things about that person.”
This motivation for performing the exercises establishes an intimate space, where penmanship may reveal anxieties. The reader then has access to the innermost thoughts of Levrero’s anxiety-riddled protagonist. Although the focus is apparently on “draw[ing] the letters one by one and giving no thought to the meanings of the words they’re forming,” the narrator ultimately ends up considering the meaning of the words, all of which culminate in a humorous and engaging meditation on daily life and one’s own existence.
By structuring Empty Words as he does, Levrero may be implicitly asking the reader whether we can derive a deeper meaning from the shape of the letters, the form of the handwriting, just as the narrator asks this question of himself. Can the shape of the letters tell us something that the words themselves cannot? To be clear, the novel is all in typeface; we do not see any handwriting. We only hear (or rather read) about the narrator’s difficulties with forming certain letters. “[H]ow the hell do you do a capital S?” Later on, a paragraph is devoted to improving “r’s”—“[r]ound and round the rugged rock the ragged rascal ran.”
But this is hardly a book of repeated words and letters. Indeed, any concerns that the exercises are a “clumsy substitute for literature” are unnecessary. A discourse on the shape of letters becomes an opportunity to step inside someone else’s mind. Why is he picking these words? Is he struggling to focus on the exercises? Why? Is there something else he wants to write rather than focusing on the exercises? It inevitably becomes like reading a diary that was not meant to be a diary. But because words inherently express ideas, meaning is inevitable.
To discover the meaning behind Levrero’s words takes patience. Empty Words does not follow a linear storyline (even if each handwriting exercise is dated and appears in chronological order). But Levrero encourages the reader’s patience by peppering the novel with clever and rather dry humor. The reader is incentivized to keep turning the pages to find the next digression from handwriting exercises to deadpan observations about daily life.
These observations crop up as the protagonist deals with his anxiety, with an impending move to a different house, and with the tense relationship between his dog, Pongo, and a white cat that appears one day. For example, taking a deadpan tone, Levrero’s unnamed novelist observes that his handwriting is messiest when he smokes more cigarettes than usual. He then concludes that “bad handwriting is caused by anxiety.” In other words, bad handwriting is evidence of anxiety, which must mean that the anxiety has subsided when the handwriting improves.
Although a short novel, Empty Words is the type of work one might start and stop somewhat frequently given the lack of a linear of plotline. Levrero seems to be aware of this possibility. Specifically, just as the reader may interrupt her reading of the novel, Levrero inserts various household interruptions that distract from the effort at perfecting the shape of letters. But these interruptions and distractions do more than reflect the potential that the reader may be experiencing something similar. Indeed, they add a richness by inviting the reader into the daily life of the world inside the novel. For example, the narrator’s wife and stepson keep different schedules and have different priorities that interfere with any strict focus on handwriting exercises.
After establishing this tension, it becomes especially easy to understand his trouble falling asleep when he knows his wife and stepson are awake and cannot be relied on to turn off the lights and the television or “refrain from making any noise once [he has] fallen asleep.” In this way, the non-linear structure succeeds: it is the logical choice for a novel about anxiety and self-improvement because anxiety and life hardly follow a linear trajectory.
In addition to these external interruptions, Levrero includes internal interruptions where the narrator interrupts himself. As often happens, he gets “carried away by the subject matter and forget[s] about forming the letters.” In a way, this makes sense, even if “sense is nothing but a complicated social construct.” Letters, too, are “a complicated social construct” that provide a framework for sense. By focusing on his handwriting, on something so mundane, his mind wanders. Perhaps, Levrero is also contemplating the reader’s mind wandering in these moments. But it is in these moments that Levrero shines as an author and McDermott as a translator, pulling the reader back into the novel. For example, in an early exercise, it is explained that “[t]o get anywhere in life, you have to believe in something. In other words, you have to be wrong.”
Such a strong statement tends to grab the reader’s attention and maybe refocuses the narrator, too, on the task at hand. At times, “despite the psychological pressure . . . to do other, more urgent work,” the handwriting exercises are prioritized because of their potential for self-improvement and what they might reveal about identity and personal principles. Of course, who knows if this “graphological self-therapy” leads to self-improvement. Levrero never actually says one way or the other. The narrator becomes more reflective as the novel progresses, but his anxiety remains in the background. But even if the exercises do not create the type of self-improvement that the narrator hopes for, they do provide a vehicle for offering a number of insights on life, which Levrero somehow offers without becoming cliché.
Levrero considers the ambitions we hold for ourselves—that “sometimes it’s no bad thing to aim high, especially in a field where everything colludes to make you aim low, where mediocrity is what really impresses people.” This sentiment is also part of the core of the novel. Self-improvement based upon improving handwriting is a high ambition, which common sense would suggest may well be futile or at least encourage low expectations of success.
But Levrero’s work is also a meditation on figuring out what we want to say. After all, even though the whole novel is apparently about forming letters (and not the words those letters form), there are frequent digressions and attempts to articulate any number of concerns or thoughts. In doing so, it is not unusual to get frustrated at “not being able to condense [the] story, to get to the heart of what [we] want to say.” We may “tr[y] again and again, and every time [we] end up going around in circles and getting lost in minor details.” For as much as the narrator gets lost in minor details, it is precisely those minor details of forming certain letters, looking after his dog, and engaging with his wife and stepson that make the novel so compelling. Sometimes, going around in circles is simply the point.
Levrero also makes a point about figuring out how identity evolves over time. At the end of the novel, the narrator explains that “[w]hen you reach a certain age, you’re no longer the protagonist of your own actions: all you have left are the consequences of things you’ve already done.” Perhaps, then, the benefits of improved handwriting are limited, and any self-improvement cannot wash away the consequences of prior decisions. Similarly, the writing itself outlives the writer, so at some point, even when the writer is gone and no more can be said, the consequences of what was previously written remains.
Or maybe, Levrero’s point is that arriving at any of these insights requires attention to ordinary activities like forming the shape of the letter “r.” In a tribute to the ordinary, Levrero creates an extraordinary work, reminding readers that words will never be empty.
Ashlee Paxton-Turner is a native of Williamsburg, Virginia, and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she was an English major with a creative writing concentration. A former Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina, Ashlee is now a lawyer and graduate of Duke University School of Law.