Review of Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci
Published February 6, 2018
Coffee House Press
Empty Set by “the visual artist who writes” Verónica Gerber Bicecci, a story about a young art school student also named Verónica (or (I) or (V)) set in Mexico City, is majorly concerned with the techniques individuals use to creatively overcome personal trauma and difficulties. As such, one would hesitate to call Empty Set a “political” book. Yet, one cannot read it without confronting the importance of the Military Dictatorship in Argentina during the mid to late 1970’s to the story. In looking at Empty Set from both of these perspectives, namely the personal and political, one begins to see a fair amount of overlap in the techniques used to deal with types of problems that come up in both spheres. And in the case of Empty Set, the latter immensely impacts the former for (V), our narrator.
The book is written in the first person, and documents the life of (V) through her various creative endeavors, odd jobs, and relationships in early 2000’s Mexico City. What sticks out about (V)’s personality is the way she thinks about and expresses how she navigates her way through her life. For instance, not everybody would describe meeting a new friend, in this case the graduate student Alphonso (A), and learning about their mother’s life as entering an alternate, parallel universe (which (V) does). Also, it’s not everyday you find someone who characterizes the way they cut ties and remove themselves from having any sort of negative relation to an ex and their new lover, namely Tordo (T), an artist and teacher as well as (V)’s ex and Her (H), his new lover, as finding an “escape route.” And (V) diagrams both of these situations as well, if her way of working through these situations wasn’t captivating enough.
The way (V) approaches troublesome situations is fascinating, and it is an interesting thought experiment to figure out what events led to her viewing her life and the world the way she does. A good place to start is looking at how she ended up in Mexico City in the first place. Her parents, who were labeled subversives (her father was a radical avant-garde playwright), fled Buenos Aires during Argentina’s Military Dictatorship. (V) and her Brother (B) were born sometime after then in Mexico City, but at a certain age, both parents, who split up, disappeared from the lives of their kids. It is suggested that their absence is in part due to trauma caused by their experience as exiles. The dictatorship irrevocably changed them both beyond repair, which caused (V) and (B) to create new ways to live in the absence of such crucial figures. (V), speaking about another Argentinian “black-listed” exile in the book, namely Alphonso’s deceased mother Marisa (Mx), states that, “apparently, the consequences of dictatorship are felt afterwards, long afterwards. Exile is simply a way of delaying them.” Of course, this thought equally applies to (V)’s parents. While her parents successfully found an “escape route,” the dictatorship and exile had effects that both stayed with them and were passed on in some way to their children.
It is impossible to reduce (V)’s personality to purely material and political variables, I’m convinced that the passed along effects of political repression and exile are major factors in why (V) makes sense of the world and her life the way that she does (as well as the language she uses to describe this process).
While I have very generally spelled out the connection between the Military Dictatorship in Argentina with (V)’s life, an event that has been written about extensively and not something I plan to fully explicate in the course of this review, there are three more specific and more concrete manifestations of political exile that can explain the unique way (V) approaches the world. For one, the artistic-intellectual-political climate of Mexico City, especially in the late 20th century through the early 21st century, was massively influenced by political exiles from Latin American dictatorships. These exiled artists and intellectuals had an immense influence on how people in their milieu both made art and interpreted the world, both in artists’ circles themselves and in the universities, particularly at UNAM (Bicecci’s alma mater). Secondly, at the very least some cocktail of the intellectual culture of exile and her parents’ flight from Argentina is strongly tied to (V)’s notion of “escape” routes, and it’s not at all a stretch to say that it is one the causes for (V)’s use of this concept. Lastly, (V)’s relation to Argentina, mirroring her mother existing in a totally different world than her, situates her in juxtaposition to an absent, “parallel” universe of unlived possibilities, which causes her to always be aware that the situations she finds herself in, which constitute her world, are far from the only way things could be. She knows that there exist “alternate universes,” other new and potentially better possibilities and worlds, and through her innate creativity, self-developed therapeutic techniques for overcoming trauma and training as an artist, she has the acrobatic ability to “shape-shift” and slip into such aforementioned possibilities and worlds.
It is well-documented how influential subversive exiles from Cold War-era Latin American dictatorships had on the art scene in Mexico City. Mexico City was somewhat of a refuge for exiled artists, one of the most famous being Roberto Bolaño, who got out of Chilé while he could. Of course, as Umberto Eco notes in his famous essay “Ur-Fascism” that artists and intellectuals are despised by fascist regimes. He writes,
Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
One of the first groups to get “gulag’d” and black-listed by such regimes is invariably the intellectuals and artists. Fascism institutes and maintains one world, or interpretation of the world, with little room or any movement(s) or divergence. Part of what makes artists dangerous and connects their creativity to politics is that they reveal alternate possibilities and new worlds. They point out through both their work and their existence that the world (or system) could be different than what it currently is, which is an unthinkable idea for fascism.
In Mexico City, the exiled artists from such regimes found somewhat of a refuge, and in this context made art with an awareness of what sort of ideas could lead to fascism. Through their experiences, such exiled artists, as well as professors, naturally knew the importance of art that challenged the status quo and imagined alternate possibilities. And as Bicecci remarks in a recent interview that many professors at UNAM, her alma mater, were exiles themselves. So, it’s perhaps not a reach to conclude that (V)’s penchant for being able to imagine and jump into better, alternate relations to the world when her “current” situations become unbearable is related to the ideas illuminated post-dictatorship intellectuals and artists in Mexico City at the time she is a student in the book.
A major theme within (V)’s thinking and approach to the world and art that she most likely got from the intellectual climate of Mexico City is that of escape. When she finds herself in a negative situation, normally due to various kinds of relationships gone sour, her first instinct is to find an escape route. She illustrates her “negative worlds” through detailed drawings of Venn Diagrams, often with six or more variables. For instance, she makes a new diagram that illustrates how she escaped her post-breakup predicament. Verónica tells us that she, Tordo, and Her now form a triangular relationship with each other:
We have to accept…that if we join the distances between us with straight lines the result would be more like a triangle than any other figure…The triangle stretches out and out and out, but doesn’t snap… I roundly refused to form a part of the triangle configuration they imposed on me. Prefer to think of myself as a cone; some people say a cone is a rotating triangle, even better…So the map of the situation or rather the Universe (U) in which (I) was trapped, could be seen differently. What’s left of me could also look like a slice of the pie.
Through this process of conceptualizing experiences that traditionally refuse rationalization, Verónica is able to transform herself and subsequently “escape unharmed” from situations that ensnare her. And these escapes from “configurations” imposed on her mirrors how people flee larger, more structural forms of “imposed configurations.” While it’s debatable to what extent her relationship to exiles gives her this idea of escape, the parallels between finding freedom for oneself through flight, whether from a bad relationship, or even the world as it exists when one is in a bad relationship, or political oppression, are quite evident.
The other concept that (V) makes use of is that of “parallel universes,” which, while tied to escape, is more related to the notion of imagining new worlds and recognizing the fact that things could have turned (or could turn out) much differently than they did (or could) which is a key tenet both of most artists in general and especially artists who have made it through harsh political circumstances. (V) gets this idea from two sources: when she supposes that her mother disappeared from the universe, and from meeting Alphonso (A) and hearing about his mother’s (Marisa, Mx) life and exile as a writer, and from when she and her brother visited their grandmother back in Buenos Airs late in the book. (V) experienes an uncanny feeing when, in her Grandma’s house, she learns that, “there was meant to be a second floor above. My Brother (B) and I should have lived upstairs… It’s a weird feeling to arrive at a place that corresponds to you, but where you don’t belong,” which is an almost Sebaldian line. Being able to imagine parallel universes in (V)’s case comes from the imposed absences that were caused by the culture of exile as well as her more personal experience of the effects of exile through her relationship (or lack of one) to her parents. It’s living with a constant awareness that things could have been very different, with various potentialities still there but unfortunately dead. But (V)’s strength is her ability to flip this melancholy knowledge on it’s head and recognizing its truth in relation to the present and future: new potentialities exist and can be accessed, leading to more freedom, healthier relationships, and a less harsh world.
While Empty Set, does not offer a concrete way out of the tragedies and hardships that result from the exile and political oppression it documents, it does offer ways of thinking about and approaching the world that can be used to make the world more hospitable for those who use them as Verónica does. The way she shape shifts and devises escape routes in order to break out of situations unharmed, both illustrated by and through the thinking that goes into her diagrams, provides a useful model not only for personally dealing with emotional trauma and expressing complex anxieties in a way that is more intuitive, but perhaps for breaking out of socio-political shackles. Tyrannical power can take the form of a brutal dictatorship, but it can also manifest in more insidious ways, and one can’t understand how they are being acted on unless they break out of certain modes of thought and consciousness that are conditioned by our mediatized “society of the spectacle.” In our society of images where everything is constantly changing but also remaining exactly the same, perhaps the initial challenge is learning how to see ourselves, individually and collectively, in creatively different ways, which open ourselves up to new ways of life and perhaps even forms of resistance.
I’m reminded of Lana Wachowski’s HRC Visibility Award Acceptance speech in which she discusses the freedom she experienced after realizing she was transgender and the various possibilities that realization opened up: “This world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds, previously unimaginable.” Perhaps it is this imaginative power possessed by exiled artists and exiles, Bicecci and alluded to by Wachowski that can be used as a basis to avoid or maybe even resist potential or invisibly real socio-political atrocities that are always only just around the corner.
Short Postscript about the Postscript:
This is the first book I’ve read where they published an email correspondence between the translator, in this case the prolific translator of Hispanic Literature Christina MacSweeney, and the author. At the end of the book, there is a brief postscript that documenting the exchanges between Verónica and Christina concerning how to translates the numerous Yo’s in the text. When should she translate them? When should she omit them? They eventually found the answer together.
Also on the topic of translation, in an interview, Verónica said that Christina wrote her own book in translating Empty Set, which she in a sense signed off on. It seems like authors normally take two different stances regarding their translators, namely that they stayed faithful to the original and were able to give the book itself new life in a different language, or that the translated version is a totally different book itself. It brings up various ideas within the field of translation studies and theory.
Lastly, it’s interesting to note one more difficulty in translation: while I haven’t encountered the original Spanish, the book itself is extremely creative: as a visual artist who writes, it seems like Bicecci sort of applies words to the page like paint to a canvas, rather than thinking intensely about what she wants to say and finding the perfect words to say it. There is a very small gap between the signifier and signified, so it makes sense that it would be difficult for MacSweeney to be totally faithful to the original, and that Bicecci refers to the translated version as a new book. It’s always impossible, but I imagine in this case it would be even more impossible, to be totally faithful to the text. In any case, MacSweeney’s translation has a very nice rhythm, preserves the emotional-intellectual intensity of (V) and does a very good job of keeping the main ideas at the forefront.
Links to articles mentioned
- Book cover taken from its Amazon page.
- UNAM’s main library, taken from wikipedia.
- Drawing taken from Empty Set.