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Empty Words

Uruguayan novelist Mario Levrero's Empty Words, his first to be translated into English, documents the quest of a writer who decides to improve his handwriting in order to conquer his personal problems. This plan goes awry, yet what emerges is charming, hilarious and often insightful. Much like Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, Empty Words is a book about writing itself and the frustrations of the creative process. Even when the narrator tries to focus on the task at hand, he inadvertently begins to document his neuroses and petty complaints. Levrero's prose is often poetic and slightly winking throughout; he knows that his hero is a bit ridiculous but likes him regardless. (And translator Annie McDermott has done an impeccable job adapting him.)

Levrero seemed to chafe at being placed in any canon of Latin American literature, and he shares the tendency of Borges and Lispector to reach epiphany through roundabouts and the gleeful embrace of the strange. It's only when the narrator writes about his weird dreams and feelings that he can actually move on from what bothers him. Empty Words does not suggest that there's an easy solution to unhappiness. But there is at least the possibility of serenity, and the sheer power that comes from creation, from putting words onto the page. Hopefully this isn't the first and last of Levrero's works to be translated. --C.M. Crockford, freelance reviewer