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EMPTY WORDS by Mario  Levrero


by Mario Levrero ; translated by Annie McDermott

Pub Date: May 21st, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-56689-546-0
Publisher: Coffee House

Change your handwriting, change your life: an enigmatic 1996 novel, his first to be translated into English, by Uruguayan writer Levrero.

In Latin America, there’s a literary saw that says that Mexico produces novelists, Chile poets, and Uruguay “strange ones.” So notes translator McDermott in her scene-setting introduction to this slender story à clef, in which Levrero recounts trying to make his handwriting more calligraphic and, by improving it, to alter bad habits and become an altogether better person. The problem is the solution: He tries to write “empty words,” words chosen simply for their power to test the musculature of composition, say with lots of instances of the troublesome letter r in them. By not lifting the pen from the page, Levrero writes, “I think this will help me improve my concentration and the continuity of my thoughts, which are currently all over the place.” Write he does, scattered thoughts and all, and amid the humdrum, meaningful compositions begin to emerge, unbidden, tempting the author “to turn my calligraphical prose into narrative prose, with the idea of building a series of texts that, like the steps of a staircase, would carry me back up to those longed-for heights I was once able to reach.“ More than just an exercise in chasing his own tail, Levrero takes himself into dangerous psychological territory, wrestling with the things that underlie his loopy a’s: anxiety builds, he smokes like a chimney, he bloats and becomes listless—and then comes, if not a breakthrough, at least the emergence of some interesting if sometimes unpleasant sketches, marked by second thoughts, strike-throughs, revisions, and other such signs of the alchemy that is writing. Vita contemplativa, vita scripta: What Levrero learns about himself, in the end, is of universal application, and while it’s not necessarily cheerful, it allows him to proceed “by means of a kind of spiritual acrobatics.”

A curious, even eccentric book, and a must-read for fans of post-boom Latin American literature.