On Mario Levrero's Empty Words

In Mario Levrero’s Empty Words, an aging writer decides to begin a penmanship practice in order to improve himself. He tries to avoid any urges toward story and plot and simply focus on the letters and readability of his prose. Nonetheless, stories emerge from the diary entries, and we begin to know the narrator. I'm not sure the finished novel is successful, but I'm a sucker for stories that attempt to eschew plot or other elements of craft. Is it the narrator that cannot avoid plot, although he tries? Or the reader that cannot help but stitch a narrative from mere fragments? We humans seem incapable of not connecting dots.

After just a few entries, I begin to read for minor infractions of the narrator's partner, Alicia, and her son, Juan Ignacio. Whenever Pongo, the dog, winnows his way into the narrator’s musings, I get excited. I worry over the opening the narrator has bent in the fence to facilitate Pongo’s excursions. It’s these intrusions that create suspense and keep the reader turning the page:

An interruption, per usual. But this time it’s a meaningful interruption, a kind of intrusion of my own discourse into the absence of the discourse, into the nothingness of today. Alicia’s just come into the house, dragging the dog behind her and muttering under her breath. She shuts him in the courtyard “in disgrace” and then announces very angrily that he’s just killed a bird.

I try to not see myself in the narrator’s neurotic obsessions, his hiding away from his family, his inability to focus, his fretting over his writing exercises, his "empty words." Those empty words often contain his own detailed dreams, which he shares with Alicia, often passively by leaving his handwriting samples out for her to examine. There's humor here, and also rare moments of sweetness that come unexpectedly from life itself, rather than the writing practice. Clearly, this is the point, or one of the points, that emerges from the larger exercise of the novel—the writing practice pitted against the family. Levrero even dedicates the book to Alicia, Juan Ignacio, and Pongo, essentially telling the reader which wins.

Mario Levrero, beloved in his native Uruguay, is the author of fifteen novels, including more acclaimed novel La ciudad. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 64. Reportedly, he was a reclusive writer and rarely gave interviews. This is the first of his books that has been translated into English, by Annie McDermott for Coffee House Press. The translator’s notes are quite wonderful and enlightening. McDermott writes:

In Latin America, it’s said that Chile produces poets, Argentina produces short story writers, Mexico produces novelists, and Uruguay produces “los faros”—the strange ones. Levrero was a raro of the highest order, though he rejected the label, complaining that it meant journalists and critics were forever wanting him to do new strange things. “It would be far more interesting for them if, instead of writing, I committed a murder,” he grumbled in a famous “imaginary interview” he conducted with himself. Still, it’s hard to think of a more fitting category for this unrecognizable 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."

Throughout Empty Words, the narrator struggles with, and for, that sense of freedom. The tone of the book teeters between punishing and humorous, and I can almost imagine Levrero chuckling as he wrote, pulling back at confessions that hit too close to home. At the end of the novel, the reader is gifted with an epilogue that is utterly touching. It’s just a few pages long, so I’ll close with a single sentence and leave the rest for you to discover: “I can’t get free of the tangle of consequences, and there’s no point trying to be the protagonist of my own actions again, but what I can can do is to find my lost self among these new patterns and learn to live again, only differently.”

To order a copy of Empty Words, visit Coffee House Press.

Empty Words  by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott. Coffee House Press, 2019. 152 pp.

Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott. Coffee House Press, 2019. 152 pp.