The empty book
Lately, I’ve been going through the books in the Mexican part of our library.
I bought them more than thirty years ago when Felipe and I still lived there; they’ve since survived nine moves.
The other day I reread “El libro vacio”—The Empty Book—by Josefina Vicens. Although she only published two novels, she is regarded as one of the secret treasures of modern Mexican literature and a forerunner of the metafiction boom of the 1960s.
When I bought the book at the beginning of 1979, I’d been living in Mexico for about half a year and, although my Spanish was fluent, I wasn’t yet able to capture the nuances.
I was drawn towards the book’s title because I wanted to become a writer and was convinced that I had at least one empty book to fill. Also, the writer’s name is the Spanish translation of my mother’s name, and at 155 pages the book was not too intimidating for a first try at reading in a newly acquired language.
“El libro vacio” is about José Garcia, a lower-middle-class accountant living somewhere in Mexico and barely supporting his wife and two sons. It follows him as he struggles with his inability to write. His need to write exists independently of his perception that an ordinary person has nothing to say.
He buys two notebooks, the first is for his random thoughts, his experiences and ideas. The second is for the draft of the novel he tells everyone he is writing.
That second notebook remains empty.
He begins to fill the first notebook with thoughts and reminiscences about his wife, his sons, an extramarital affair, his financial difficulties, and his job.
Without planning it, he tells a story that does have meaning and significance—the story of his own attempt to transcend the limits of mundane existence through writing.
“Strictly speaking, it is your reality that you can only talk about. And if it is not possible to extract from it what you require for a different and transcendent book, give up your dream.”
The book resonated with me. My notebooks were also full of self-recriminations and guilt over having produced nothing of value. Just like José Garcia I wondered how those that write do it.
How do they make their words obey them? But I was determined not to give up my dream.
It’s only when reading it again after all these years that I see how refined but forceful Josefina Vicens’s language is.
I see the brown stain of the mole sauce I spilled on the book when I read it while having lunch in our favourite restaurant around the corner of our apartment on Avenida Mazatlan.
Even though it has been in many different book cases for the last thirty years “El libro vacio” still smells of Mexico.