Empty Words

A novel by Mario Levrero, translated by Annie McDermott

May 21, 2019 • 5 x 7.75 • 152 pages • 978-1-56689-546-0

From a legendary cult figure in Latin American literature, the story of a writer who obsessively observes his own handwriting in search of answers about his identity.

An eccentric novelist begins to keep a notebook of handwriting exercises, hoping that if he’s able to improve his penmanship, his personal character will also improve. What begins as a mere physical exercise becomes involuntarily colored by humorous reflections and tender anecdotes about living, writing, and the sense—or nonsense—of existence.

About the Author

Mario Levrero was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1940 and died there in 2004. Levrero was a photographer, bookseller, comics scriptwriter, humorist, crossword author, and creator of brain games. In his later years, he directed a literary workshop. Empty Words is his first novel translated and published in English.

Annie McDermott’s translations from Spanish and Portuguese have appeared in Granta, the White Review, Asymptote, Two Lines, and World Literature Today, among others. Her translation of The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero is forthcoming from Coffee House Press and And Other Stories.


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

“[A] teasing jeu d'esprit . . . As a calling card for Levrero’s talent, it’s certainly enticing.” —The Guardian

“Reading his exercises is relaxing, like sitting at the kitchen table and chatting with a friend . . . charmingly, haplessly funny.” —NPR

“A very funny satire on the realistic novel . . . [a] brilliant little tour de force.” —Star Tribune

Empty Words contains two threads: the handwriting exercises (complete with distractions) and what Levrero calls ‘The Discourse,’ which has the stated aim of being about nothing. . . . As with the writing exercises, the rules here are strictly limiting. Seen another way, they are freeing. By throwing off the burden of an idea, Levrero can follow his ‘Discourse’ wherever it takes him.” —Rain Taxi

"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." —The National

“A lighthearted wisdom beats in every sentence of Empty Words, a little masterpiece by Mario Levrero, who is, to me, one of the funniest and most influential writers of recent times. This book might change your life, or at least your handwriting.” —Alejandro Zambra

“We are all his children.” —Álvaro Enrigue

“An eccentric, funny, and original novel: philosophical but playful, short but obsessive, ironic but desperate, and theoretical but intimate.” —Dana Spiotta

“Of all [Levrero's] works, Empty Words, for its lucidity, boldness, absurdity, and irresistible humor, not to mention its strategic value in relation to the rest of his oeuvre . . . is the best means of accessing this singular author, who continues to gain followers and whose reputation has long since outgrown the niche reserved for cult authors.” —Ignacio Echevarría

“In short, the title of Empty Words is deceptive. On the contrary, it is full. Full of the mystery that is the irrational side of the act of writing.” —Transfuge

“An intense form of introspection that has nothing to do with the usual narcissism of the world of letters.” —Le Matricule des Anges

“A humorous story, tinged with eroticism and interspersed with calligraphic exercises.” —Livres Hebdo

“One can take this genre as a diary, as a novel entirely imagined, as an autobiographical or purely psychological analysis, ‘an act of self-construction’ . . . A Cartesian mind who wishes to decide would deprive himself of the healthy freedom that Mario Levrero offers him.” —Nouveaux Espaces Latinos

“[Empty Words] is a concentrate of Uruguayan humor, and the narrator, busy perfecting his upstrokes and downstrokes, almost forgets to have something to say.” —L’Obs

Praise for Mario Levrero

“Levrero is Kafka’s ‘everyday’ flip side, a shadow of Camus with a comical take.” —El País

“Style and imagination like Levrero’s are rare in Spanish-language literature.” —Antonio Muñoz Molina

“Mario Levrero is a genius.” —Enrique Fogwill

“Levrero is an author who challenges the canonical idea of Latin American literature. If you really want to complete the puzzle of our tradition, you must read him.” Juan Pablo Villalobos, Granta

“Mario Levrero is the great discovery of the century for Latin American literature.” —Revista Ñ

“Reading him draws us into experiencing the order of the irreversible, we leave our reading and encounter another reality on account of the simple fact that something inside us has changed, that our way of seeing is no longer the same. The man who never died.” —Germán Beloso, Arcadia