Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 June 2019

Book review: 'Empty Words' is redemptive, enlarging, poignant and humane

Mario Levrero’s novel offers an insight into the minds of one of Uruguay's most important 'raros'

Mario Levrero’s novel is set in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. Getty
Mario Levrero’s novel is set in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. Getty

Immerse yourself in the literary culture of Latin America and it will not be long before you encounter the following observation: Chile ­produces poets, Mexico produces novelists, Argentina produces short-story writers, and Uruguay produces los raros – the strange ones.

There can be exceptions to such statements, but the translation of Empty Words (originally published in Spanish in 1996, and now available in English for the first time) lends the final clause of the proposition an undeniable force. Here is a book that introduces us to a Uruguayan author Mario Levrero, who died in 2004 and a raro of the first degree.

His novel chronicles the efforts of a writer (similar in many respects to Levrero himself) to elevate his character by embarking on a series of daily exercises designed to improve his handwriting. The book’s unnamed narrator works from his home in Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento, where he endures the passing of the “depressingly oppressive” seasons in the company of “a woman, a child, a dog and a cat” and “a big invisible clock [that] marks the same time for every day, every month, every year”. He charts the evolution of his project by recording in a series of diary entries the concerns, setbacks and progressions generated by his foray into calligraphical refinement.

The motives come from the recognition that he has been living for some time in a sorry psychological state, often waking to a sense of metaphysical unease. “For too long now – too many years – I’ve been living outside myself, concerned only with what’s going on around me,” he says.

In order to combat this sense of self-alienation, he wonders if devoting himself ­assiduously to the craft of penmanship, and stripping his writing of all literary concerns, might enable him to make a journey inwards in a quest to find the elusive essence of his being.

As the narrator journeys towards his inner self – “the miraculous being that lives inside me and is able, among so many other extraordinary things, to fabricate interesting stories and cartoons” – he strives to become the artist of his own destiny. He finds himself distracted by the presence of his lazy son, who keeps dropping by for chats about romance, and worries that his attempt to divest his writing of novelistic concerns is showing signs of failing.

These exercises are becoming less calligraphical and more literary as time goes on; there’s a discourse – a style, a form, more than an idea – that won’t leave me alone, and it’s getting the better of me,” the narrator says. What he means is that, despite his best efforts, another kind of text is fighting its way on to the page, a text to do with time, emptiness, anxiety.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero 
Empty Words by Mario Levrero 

None of this is as daunting as it sounds. Levrero writes, on the whole, with lightness, economy and precision, and throughout the book the predominant tone – beautifully captured by Annie McDermott’s elegant translation – is one of appealing curiosity and bemused wonder. Although there is little here to engage with in terms of plot, barely a page goes by without the reader encountering a charming phrase, observation or moment of humanity.

Often these moments contain a humour that is dry, deadpan, sardonic or possessed of a peculiar kind of pathos, as when the narrator opens a diary entry by wryly assuming that the record of his humdrum activities is already assured of posthumous fame. “Allow me to record, so it’s known in the centuries to come, that I am writing this at 8:30 in the morning.”

A similar moment comes when he remarks upon his ongoing battle to master the mystifying workings of his computer. “The problem of making sounds on the computer is still plaguing me,” the narrator says.

Often these moments contain a humour that is dry, deadpan, sardonic or possessed of a peculiar kind of pathos, as when the narrator opens a diary entry by wryly assuming that the record of his humdrum activities is already assured of posthumous fame.

In addition to these lovely moments, Levrero also offers moving reflections on what his narrator calls “the magical influence of graphology”. “Big writing, big me. Small writing, small me. Beautiful writing, beautiful me.” It shows an aptitude for giving a voice to his thoughts in a manner that is edifying, memorable and affirmative.

In such formulations, time is characterised as a phenomenon that permits us the luxury of enjoying while we are alive “the cold that awaits us in the tomb that bears our name”.

To reconnect with your inner being is to make contact with an entity that is “part of the divine spark that roams ­tirelessly through the universe”.

Not all of Levrero’s prose is so stirring: he has a weakness for dead expressions such as “blissfully unaware” and “time, the great healer”. But these do little to diminish the force and freshness of the book as whole. Redemptive, enlarging, poignant, humane – it is a testament to the value of the strange.

Updated: June 6, 2019 06:30 PM

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