“This book might change your life, or at least your handwriting.” Alejandro Zambra is not wrong about Mario Levrero’s Empty Words. Annie McDermott’s translation, out last Thursday, might just do the same for you.
There are plenty of “how to write” books out there, and this isn’t one of them. Although it sets off in a somewhat self-help style, the premise is different. The author is going to do what most of us haven’t done since primary school (if then, these days? He wrote this 25 years ago). He’s going to focus on his handwriting. And this means emptying his mind to fill the page with perfect forms, without getting distracted by the content.
Except the distractions are legion. Constant interruptions from his wife and son put him off track. He finds himself writing about what’s happening, getting agitated, and that shakes the letters off course. Sometimes, he has to get up and intervene in events around him. This leads him to create another interruption for himself in future, by letting the dog out.
He intersperses his daily handwriting exercises with sections where he lets the text take shape. Although Uruguayans are considered odd by their neighbours, and Levero himself was perhaps even odder, his experience of encroaching middle age is universal, and deftly expressed (I can say this, I’m about to turn 44).
Ostensibly intent on saying nothing at all, he ends up saying a great deal. Now we have to hold out for McDermott’s translation of Levero’s masterwork, La novela luminosa. Luckily, And Other Stories is already on the case.