Josefina Vicens - A novel about the writing process, it stands as a forerunner of the metafiction boom of the 1960s. José García’s empty notebook stands for the unrealized dreams of all of us who will never be heroes or celebrities

The Empty Book: A Novel (Texas Pan American Series) by Josefina Vicens  (1992-03-01): Amazon.com: Books

Josefina Vicens, Empty Book: a Novel, Trans. by

David Lauer, University of Texas Press, 1992.


". . . wonderful, a true novel: simple, refined, and full of a secret pity but, at the same time, solid and forceful. —from the preface by Octavio Paz

"It's a lot easier just not to write." So argues Josefina Vicens' alter ego, Jose García, in The Empty Book. Yet his need to write exists independently of his perception that an "ordinary" person has "nothing to say." In the very act of writing about "nothing," Garcia paradoxically tells a story that does have meaning and significance—the story of his own attempt to transcend the limits of mundane existence through creative work.

Winner of the prestigious Xavier Villaurrutia prize, The Empty Book was first published in Mexico as El libro vacío in 1958. A novel about the writing process, it stands as a forerunner of the metafiction boom of the 1960s that included the works of such writers as Cortazar, Pacheco, and Elizondo. The accessibility of its language and themes makes this novel highly democratic and empowering, rescuing literature from the realm of high art and opening it to participation by "ordinary" people.

A novel for everyone interested in the process of writing—and not writing—The Empty Book presents a novelist who deserves to be much better known by English-language readers.

José García has two notebooks. The first is for his random daily thoughts, his notes, his experiences, his ideas. The second is for the draft of the novel he tells everyone he is writing. The second notebook is empty.

García is a lower middle class accountant living somewhere in Mexico and barely supporting his wife and two sons. For reasons he can’t explain or understand, he is compelled to write even though, as he freely admits, he doesn’t know how, and he has nothing to say. The first notebook opens with a string of such self-recriminations. The more he writes, the deeper his guilt over having produced nothing of value. Often he has considered burning his notebooks, only to realize that the next thing he would do is buy a new notebook to record his feelings about having burned the previous one.

But without having planned it, García begins to fill the first notebook with thoughts and reminiscences about his wife, his sons, an extramarital affair, his financial difficulties, and his job. Thinking about his wife, he observes that “it is only in the body of a person whom we have loved deeply for a long time that we don’t perceive the passing of time, and that growing old with that person is a way of never growing old. Seeing someone from day to day has a slow, compassionate rhythm.”

When his grown son falls in love with an older woman, García despairs of giving him guidance:

Maybe he’s right. He feels I can’t understand it. He considers my fifty-six years capable of conserving the memory of a twenty-year-old’s love but not its richness. He feels that I keep the whole experience inside me, compact, sort of petrified, but that I can no longer separate and give the emotions their exact value that love aroused, that I no longer understand tears, hope, desire, or the absolute truth that the world begins in the head of a woman and ends at her feet. There are no other surroundings, there is no other horizon. She, she alone with her small boundaries that contain everything….

Don’t pay any attention to my advice; experience lies at the end of the road, and I shouldn’t deprive you of either the pleasure of the road or the sad wealth you’ll find when you come to its end. Because that’s what experience is: a sad wealth that shows you only how you should have lived but not how to live again.

And most poignantly, García speaks of the common man’s sense of hope and the future. We are always wanting time to hurry by so that we can see our dreams materialize. We look forward to watching our children grow, to gaining the next promotion, to paying off our debts, and to putting a bad experience behind us. “And so,” he concludes, “hoping that time will pass so that the daily problems that weigh us down will also pass, we find one day that our own time has passed.”

José García’s empty notebook stands for the unrealized dreams of all of us who will never be heroes or celebrities. The Empty Book is a beautiful and moving expression of both the shattered hopes and the hidden richness of a common life, and of the nature of memory and experience. It was also, in 1958, the first work of metafiction by a Mexican author. José García writes about writing. When a close friend is put on trial for embezzling money to pay medical bills, García confesses, “So there were moments when I experienced both sorrow because of the event and enthusiasm for the possibility of describing it, and felt both with equal passion.”

It is amazing that a novel this good, this readable, and of such importance in the Latin American literary tradition should now be so obscure. But Josefina Vicens was a modest woman, always writing under masculine pen names, who refused to promote her own work. Her gender and political views probably played a role as well in keeping The Empty Book from a wider readership. If you can find a copy, I highly recommend it. - Steven    https://readlit.com/book/emptybook/

When Josefina Vicens’s first novel El libro vacío (The Empty Book) appeared in Mexico in 1958, she was an unknown forty-seven-year-old author. The metafictional book about the mystery and discomfort of the creative urge—“the impossibility of writing,” as she called it—won acclaim and national awards, setting high expectations that Vicens would become a renowned writer of her generation. However, in the twenty-four years she took to finish Los años falsos (The False Years), her next book and the only other title she published, she slid from the public eye, becoming more of an underground figure, a writer’s writer in present-day Mexico. 

I first heard mention of Vicens from a friend, a young Mexican author, in 2018. But when I looked for El libro vacío in Mexico City’s bookstores there was not a copy to be found; the last printing from 2006 had sold out long ago. English-language versions of her works were just as difficult to come by. Although both novels were translated into English and published in the United States some thirty years ago—David Lauer’s translation of The Empty Book (University of Texas Press, 1992), and Peter G. Earle’s translation of The False Years (Latin American Literary Review Press, 1989)—they have long been out of print and available only at high prices from secondhand booksellers. However, in 2019 the Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico’s seminal state-run publishing house, ran its ninth reprinting of a volume that collects both of Vicens’s novels, and I finally acquired a new Spanish-language edition of El libro vacío and Los años falsos. In reading them, I grew more and more astonished that Vicens’s lucid, restrained prose exploring the anguished inner worlds of men at odds with their public selves is not more widely read.

El libro vacío begins with its middle-aged everyman narrator José García giving in to an irrepressible desire to write, after resisting it for years. He dreams of publishing a book and has come up with a system to write it: he’s purchased two blank notebooks, one he calls a “tolerant well” in which he will freely write whatever comes to his mind. He intends to later cull through these drafts to find material worth transferring to the second notebook, which will become his novel. El libro vacío consists of the first notebook’s journal entries, unedited reflections on the inner life, and outer actions of an ordinary urban office worker. With this simple narrative device, Vicens lays out a series of chapters full of paradoxes: deep self-doubt and dogged commitment to a pursuit; the desire to be known and the fear of being revealed as a failure; wonder at the beauty in the shared human experience and revulsion at the insignificance of the individual.

From the start, García is insecure and ashamed of his fierce drive to write when he, in his own estimation, “has nothing to say.” He knows himself to be an unexceptional, low-paid office worker and the head of a rather shabby household; he recognizes himself as “nothing but average, with limited capabilities.” “Why, then,” he wonders, "this obsession? Why this disproportionate pain? [ . . . ] Why does this splendid urge live in such a modest, dark place?” García finds his own hope of publishing a book pretentious and ridiculous, as doomed to failure as any of his other past illusions, from his dashed childhood aspirations to his recent torturous love affair. He spends much of his time writing about his conviction that nothing he writes will ever be good enough for the second notebook, which remains blank. 

Yet García persists with his first notebook, scouring himself for worthy subject matter, for the craft and the tools to help him achieve his objective. In doing so, he finds little other than a frequent sense of betrayal. He knows how he would like to write—conveying universal truths and avoiding the overly personal details of his own life: “Not to use the intimate voice, but rather the great murmur.” But, as he tries, even language itself turns traitor. He asks, “How do people who write do it? How do they make their words obey them? Mine go wherever they like, wherever they can. When I see them written, when I reread them with indulgent shame, I feel sorry for them. I feel that they detach from me and fall into my notebook. Just falling, without shape, without premeditated placement.” In entry after entry, García describes his bewilderment at his need to write, despite the way his ideas seem to fracture, scatter, and come out broken—along with his concept of self. While his first notebook is “full of impotence,” his second is “blank and uselessly waiting [ . . . ] the most difficult waiting, the most painful waiting: the waiting for oneself. [ . . . ] I know it’s waiting for me; its emptiness obsesses and tortures me, but if I could write anything in it, it would be to confess that I’ve also been waiting for me for a long time, and I’ve never arrived.” 

What enlivens El libro vacío is that, despite the defeat the journal represents to him, García returns to it time and again. As he scrutinizes his life and surroundings, he recounts episodes from his youth, his family life, his office, and his love affair. When his attention drifts from his own inadequacies, he slips into a different mode, one in which he examines his memories with tenderness and intimacy, reflecting on the paradoxes of his life and the lives of those around him with great emotional acuity. The reader is swept along with García into reveries that display a sensitive, clear-minded construction of meaning in the drab circumstances of his life. 

At one point, García analyzes the transformation that takes place in him when he gets drunk. When he is sober, he is anguished, alienated, and fearful: “I don’t know why I feel foreign from myself, as if I had accidentally fallen into my body and suddenly took notice of the place where I live.” In his daily life, he feels “a permanent tremor, inside, a devastation.” However, when he is drunk, he says:

I leave myself behind, I leave behind my tremors, I leave behind my death! [ . . . ] Drunkenness doesn’t take away my condition as a man who suffers, but it gives the suffering another meaning [ . . . ] There, nothing ever trembles. [ . . . ] In me, to be drunk is not to lose the meaning of things, strictly speaking; it changes their meaning. But I want to make this clear: I am not the one who changes it. [ . . . ] Things have another meaning, on their own, and since I can’t perceive the mechanism of the change, I find myself suddenly facing them and I feel they are permanent, exact, enough.

Readers will recognize something similar happening throughout the text of García’s journal, which demonstrates how the mere act of writing similarly intoxicates him, assuaging his torment, allowing him to discern and describe the inherent meaning in situations that otherwise overwhelm him.

Inevitably, on the pages that follow his most impressive passages, García rejects and condemns all he has previously written as vain, small-minded, and false. This suffuses the novel with moments of vertigo and whiplash that run parallel to those of the narrator’s fluctuating spirits. But even as García suffers his certain failure to write the book he so badly wants to create, readers experience in his journals a perplexing and disorienting literary masterpiece, one that bears more in common with foreign twentieth century works, such as Fernando Pessoa’s fragmentary Livro de desassossego or the fatalistic diaries of Cesare Pavese, than with literature produced in Mexico at the time.

Vicens herself had little in common with fellow Mexican writers like Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes—educated, urbane men who ran literary magazines and cultural reviews, and worked as government officials and diplomats. She was a woman of remarkably small stature who had studied only as far as grade school, beginning to work at the age of fourteen. At an early job her size and youth earned her the nickname La Peque (the little one), and it stuck for the rest of her life. Yet she had a reputation for being restless and fierce, holding a variety of jobs in almost exclusively male-dominated realms: secretary to public functionaries, union leader, bureaucrat, political journalist, and screenwriter. Many years before her novel was published, she had started a magazine, but it was dedicated to a nonliterary passion: bullfighting. She did not fit the traditional gender categories of her time: she was homosexual, dressed in masculine clothing, and prior to the publication of her novels concealed her femininity behind male pen names. In fact, the heteronym “José García” blends her two most visible false bylines: she wrote journalism as Diógenes García and bullfighting chronicles as José “Pepe” Faroles. 

In each of her pursuits, Vicens was an outsider and a nonconformist, and it is this characteristic that makes José García’s inner world so riveting. Vicens makes him an outward conformist, complying with the routines and expectations of a mediocre man, but by giving him the need to write, she gives voice to the inner world of a dissident, furious at the status quo and the contradictions generated by his obedience to it—not to mention massively disappointed in himself for his inability to transcend it. “There is something independent and powerful that acts inside me,” says García, “watched over by me, contained by me, but never conquered. It’s like being two. Two who are constantly circling, chasing each other." El libro vacío posits García as a kind of ouroboros: living an average life each day, railing against it each night in his journals, knowing he will continue to repeat both oppositional actions. The book raises the question of whether this constitutes failure or heroism, though it refuses to provide an answer.

Upon publication El libro vacío unexpectedly rose to the top of the list of the most-sold books edited in Mexico, boosted by enthusiastic critical reception and praise from cultural heavyweights such as Paz, who wrote in a letter to Vicens, “What is it that your hero tells us, this man who ‘has nothing to say’? He tells us: ‘nothing,’ and that nothing—which is found in all of us—by the mere act of accepting it, becomes everything: an affirmation of the solidarity and the brotherhood of man.” The cogent and compassionate novel won Mexico’s 1958 Xavier Villaurrutia Award, for which it was chosen over Fuentes’s novel La región más transparente, a controversial work that marked its author’s rise to national renown, still today among his most celebrated titles. Literary reviews immediately began to name Vicens alongside the country’s most established writers of importance, and hardly two weeks after the book’s publication, eminent critic Emmanuel Carballo wrote that it had “merited magnificent commentary from the best critics in Mexico . . . if ‘la Peque’ continues her work she will soon be one of Mexico’s most read authors.” 

This did not come to pass. Vicens had stated from the beginning that José García’s problem with writing was really her own—one that typically led her to tear up anything she wrote shortly after writing it (including, as she confessed in her later years, an entire novel she finished after El libro vacío). Earning the respect and attention of Mexico’s literary circles did not make it easier for her to approach what she described as the “white hell” of the blank page, and the public’s expectations of Vicens faded over the two and a half decades before her second work, Los años falsos, was published in 1982. It received praise on par with that given to its predecessor. In his review of the new title for the Revista de la Universidad de México, James Valender called it “a masterwork,” writing, “For the acute psychological penetration it displays, as well as the extraordinary richness and precision of its language, Los años falsos is a book destined to become one of the classics of Mexican twentieth century literature.” Nonetheless, the short novel came to occupy a sort of secondary position behind Vicens’s more prominent first work—which is a shame, as the brief, intense text is heavy with insight into the dynamics of Mexican families, society, and politics. 

Los años falsos presents a tempestuous internal monologue that explores the identity crisis of its nineteen-year-old narrator, the pampered firstborn son of an ambitious, dictatorial father. After the patriarch’s death four years before the novel is set, Luis Alfonso, Jr. stepped into his beloved father’s job as an aide to a political official, just as the father had requested with his last words. Now the teen has quite literally supplanted Luis Alfonso, Sr., both at home and at work, in the process discovering his own repulsion at the reality his father inhabited. Inwardly consumed by grief and anger, Luis Alfonso outwardly fulfills the expectations projected upon him by his mother and the boss, the friends, and even the mistress he has inherited, all the while raging against the figure of his deceased father that increasingly seizes his mind. The entire novel takes place during one family visit to the grave. As Luis Alfonso’s mother and sisters work to clean and maintain the grave, we join Luis Alfonso as he sits, silent and unhelpful, seething at what he has become since his namesake’s death from an accidental—but self-inflicted—gunshot wound. 

With his last request, Luis Alfonso, Sr. left his son to live out a devastating contradiction: if he does not respect his last wishes, he betrays the father he adored, but if he takes on his father’s life, he betrays himself. Throughout his monologue, Luis Alfonso’s sense of self splinters in a way that directly recalls José García; the young man refers to himself in the collective, envisioning himself as possessed by his late father and also split into another more mysterious, unknown entity. In one instance he addresses his father to describe how this works, saying, “Since I had to choose between loneliness and nothing, I decided to be my own companion, because I couldn’t let anyone who wasn’t me myself, or you, keep me company.” He continues:

So I wound up divided in three: your heir, your orphan, and the one tasked with keeping me company and consoling me. The first one lived your life with resignation, with your weight on his back; the second suffered your death and his own death; and the third, newly born and clumsy, didn’t know whether to reproach you to give me relief or to suffer your absence along with me.

Luis Alfonso recalls how, dressing in his father’s suits and following in his footsteps—always carrying the pistol responsible for his death—the teen learned to speak and act with the machismo of an adult whose motto was “Stomp hard and get ahead.” In fact, Luis Alfonso relates how he has come to dominate his family and colleagues in ways that meet and surpass the despotism of his father, driven by his repugnance at the submissiveness of those around him. Yet, he tells us, he yearns to be held accountable. When his mother makes excuses for his late arrival after staying out all night at a bordello, just as she would have for his father, he feels “violent rejection for that unknown woman, for that wife who seemed to dote on her out-all-night, authoritarian husband, not a frightened son who expected her reprimand and wanted to ask for her forgiveness.” Having lost his childhood in one sudden blow, rather than in a gradual process of growing up, Luis Alfonso craves limits, moral certainty, and grace, despising the amoral adult games of masculinity and success that he now feels he must perpetuate. 

The hypocrisy of adult society and the goals of his new colleagues bitterly disillusion him, and he observes of his grown-up friends and coworkers that “they will get ahead, and, most importantly, become more influential. Not better, just more powerful. They’re concerned with power, which is hardly ever gained by one’s own merits (our boss is a dumb, lying cheat) but rather the manipulation of others, those who are more powerful.” By locating Luis Alfonso’s adolescent perspective in the shoes of a grown man, Vicens achieves a sharp critique of the corrupting effects of power in the home and in society at large. She portrays the decay of the son’s self-concept while he sits pondering the rotting corpse of the father in the ground next to him, wishing to climb into the coffin himself, comforted only by the bleak control he exerts over the image of his father in his mind, which will exist “until I want to kill you, Dad, because if you’re still alive, it’s because I’ve decided it’s so, I’ve ordered it of you. I’m not your slave, I’m your owner, and I can give or take your life.”

Despite the stretch of time that separated them, Vicens’s two books are quite cohesive in their themes and approaches. García and Luis Alfonso are men alienated from their own lives, each perceiving the events in which he participates as if he were a distant observer. The two narrators both ache to make their true selves known, to others and to themselves, and in doing so to be freed from the multilayered prisons in which they find themselves. Both harbor the belief that they might find liberty in some outer expression of an inner truth. José García writes, continually but despondently, seeking the words that never come, hoping in spite of himself that someday he will find them. Luis Alfonso, however, acknowledges that he knows the crucial words, but resists pronouncing them:

I know what it means not to say the words that would give me back my life. I have rehearsed them desperately. At any moment of my choosing they would spring forth, flowing and forthright. Irrefutable. They are round, polished. The whole phrase is like a jewel. I have it, it’s mine. I see it shine in the middle of the silence. I only have to say it and all would be returned to me. But it remains there, at the edges of my lips like the edges of a swollen river, impossible to cross.

While Vicens’s slim body of work did not turn her into one of Mexico’s most read writers, she still occupies a place of significance in Mexico’s literary history. Christopher Domínguez Michael claims in his Critical Dictionary of Mexican Literature (1955–2011) that from among her many contemporaries on the national scene it was Vicens who “concentrated—on a superior plane of demands, that of radical simplicity—the spirit of her era. Of all the novels written by this generation, none penetrates as deeply as El libro vacío into the essence of the modern in narration.” As I discovered in 2018, Vicens is not widely available in translation—although a French translation by Alaíde Foppa (to whom Los años falsos is dedicated) was published to warm regard in 1963 by Éditions Julliard, it has met a fate similar to its English-language counterparts. Vicens, however, is available to us in her original, elemental Spanish, providing a testament to what can result from the steady pursuit of the most absurd-seeming creative need, and a companion for those who are yet waiting for themselves to arrive. - Lacey Pipkin


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