Written language is pretty neat. For a few millennia now, humans have used writing to communicate complex ideas and emotions. And yet, we’ve all encountered a time when we felt like our language was inadequate to the task of expressing ourselves. Whether it be sadness, love or any other complicated feeling, there are concepts that aren’t given proper justice through written words. So what do we do? Well, it’s this problem that is at the heart of Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s debut novel Empty Set.
The novel, which was released in English by Coffee House Press on Feb. 6, is about a 22-year-old woman living in Mexico named Verónica. The story takes place as she’s caught between the breakup of one relationship and the false start of another. The relationship at the center of the story, however, is between Verónica and her mother, who vanished years ago when the family was living in Argentina. The largely unspoken assumption is that the mother was “disappeared” by the government during the Civic-Military Dictatorship of Argentina. The repercussions of this loss weigh heavily on the lives of both Verónica and her brother. As Verónica tries to start new relationships and eventually visits her childhood home in Argentina, her mother is physically gone but emotionally present.
Notably, the protagonist shares a name with the author, which suggests that the novel may not be entirely fictional. When asked about this in an interview with The Rumpus, Gerber Bicecci responded: “I would lie if I say it is all autobiography, but I’ll be lying too if I say that everything is fiction. It is amphibian.” In any case, the ambiguous truth of the narrative makes it all the more layered.
“There are—I’m certain of this—things that can’t be told in words.”
Empty Set is fragmentary, with the chronology out of order and various sections written in different styles. Some chapters are letters, some are straight prose and almost all of them are a mix of words and drawings (the author is often described as “a visual artist who writes”). These drawings are used for a variety of reasons. One chapter details Verónica and her romantic interest, Alonso, walking through a museum. The drawings reproduce the art they’re looking at in between the text of their conversation. It combines the verbal and the visual, allowing the conversation to flow without lengthy descriptions of the art breaking it up.
Most of the drawings, however, are set-theory diagrams that visually represent the human relationships in the novel. Admittedly, that might not sound super exciting, so bear with me. The drawings play a pivotal role in this story because they allow for an analytical view of the relationships. Each important character is given a letter to represent them in the diagrams, so Alonso, for example, shows up in the text as “Alonso (A).” When two people are romantically involved, they are shown as two overlapping circles, forming a Venn diagram. And when someone has disappeared, like Verónica’s mother, their circle appears both inside and outside the “universe,” present but not. Gerber Bicecci plainly states one of her reasons for using diagrams in the text: “Visualized in this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.”
The book was translated from Spanish into English by Christina MacSweeney, who has worked on a number of other Latin American texts in her career, and her skill is commendable here. In a moment of transparency, the end of this book includes an explanation as to the use of “I” in this book. As mentioned, the important characters that appear are followed by a parenthetical letter so you’ll know how they’re represented in the diagram. When translating this book, MacSweeney wasn’t sure how exactly “I” should appear, because “I(I)” may look strange. Then there’s the issue that in Spanish, the word for I, “yo,” is optional. Instead of saying yo veo, “I see,” a Spanish-speaker can just say “veo” and it means the same thing. This text settled on representing it as just “(I)” and avoiding the pronoun whenever possible, which is fine but can be confusing.
“Visualized in this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.”
In all honesty, the book’s main appeal is the drawings, and it makes you wonder whether they’re a gimmick or not. Sometimes, the images rehash what has been written in the chapter, which can feel redundant. Still, the mathematical view of the protagonist’s internal life allows for insight into the character that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Verónica tries to understand her problems through these drawings, and that allows us to understand her better. On one hand, it seems like the character is separating herself from her emotions with the diagrams, because it’s an almost mathematical way for her to view her relationships. On the other, her drawings draw on deep emotions that are inexpressible in words.
Gerber Bicecci writes, “There are — I’m certain of this — things that can’t be told in words.” In Empty Set, language fails where emotions overpower logic, where losing someone feels like losing a piece of ourselves and where we are caught in situations too complex to wrap our heads around. When words can’t help us, we can feel trapped in our own heads. In this novel, Gerber Bicecci uses drawings to reach out of this wordless state and is able to share her inner life with the world. The communication of ideas is not without flaws here, but that’s kind of the point.
This is the fifth installment of Babbeling Books. We’re spotlighting non-English books, new and old, that interact with language or language-learning in some way. If you have any books that you think we should cover next, let us know at email@example.com or in the comments. Our only requirement is that the book must have been originally published in a language other than English.