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The Realm of Silence: The Two Novels of Josefina Vicens

Author(s): Pamela Bacarisse

Source: Letras Femeninas, Vol. 22, No. 1/2 (PRIMAVERA-OTOO 1996), pp. 91-106
Published by: Asociacion Internacional de Literatura y Cultura Femenina Hispanica
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23021175
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The Realm of Silence:

The Two Novels of Josefina Vicens
Pamela Bacarisse

University of Pittsburgh

Ainsi, entre deux langues,

votre element est-il le silence

Thus, between two languages,

your realm is silence
Julia Kristeva

Etrangers a nous-memes
In the letter to the author that serves as the preface to a recent
edition of Josefina Vicens' two narrative works, El libro vacio (1958)

and Los anos falsos (1982), Octavio Paz observes that above all the
first novel is permeated by the theme of nothingness. He detects in it
a vision of men and women "caminando siempre al borde del vacio, a
la orilla de la gran boca de la insignificancia," 'walking on the edge of
the void, of the great chasm of insignificance,' as he attributes to this

text "una filosofia que se enfrenta a la no-significacion radical del

mundo" 'a philosophy that faces up to the fundamental meaningless
ness of the world.'1 To the best of my knowledge Paz has not
expressed his views on the second novel, but since the two works have
so many thematic links his one comment may be enough to provide a

basis for an argument that applies to them both. Indeed, it is by

highlighting similarities that I shall attempt to locate the psycho
logical origin of the authorial philosophy which Paz may well have
been the first to discern.

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

This critical aim suggests that questions of social, professional

and sexual insignificance will receive scant attention, even though
these are alluded to, both explicitly and implicitly, in the narratives;
this is indeed so since it is my contention that the (in this case) false

signposts of socio-economic and sociocultural hierarchies pale into

insignificance when compared with Vicens' ontological preoccupa
tions. It is these which afford universal depth to the two texts, and
awareness of their universality is vital to their classification and to
critical value judgments. In fact, I should go so far as to affirm that
were it not for the date of at least the first novel (1958)and even that

of the second, possibly (1982)they might both immediately be

judged manifestations of a mature and generally-applicable post
feminism, of a tranquil authorial assumption that, in a literary context
if in no other, there is no longer a pressing need always to establish a

gender-based set of values, nor for a sense of evangelical mission

with the establishment of unassailable feminocentricity as its goal.
Neither should there be an automatic assumption that to write is to
battle in the arena of the gender war. The woman writer's self-esteem,
her right to write, can now be taken for granted; she has at last arrived

at a point beyond the long and difficult detour in the road that was
militant and explicit feminism. It is not, I suggest, that Josefina
Vicens did not reach the point of detour in her lifetime, rather that the
orientation of her writings is (like those of Manuel Puig, and even

pace Helene Cixousof Clarice Lispector) one that lay beyond facile
manichaeism, and that what they reveal is a profounder level of
understanding of a far from consoling circumstance: that suffering,

humiliation and ontological insecurity are not the exclusive domain

of women, however difficult and unjust our socio-economic situation
may be. In fact, in the same way that various Latin American artists

Frida Kahlo and Octavio Paz himself spring to mind have been
designated "natural surrealists," I contend that Josefina Vicens was
always a natural post-feminist.
In any case, I feel that ontological insecurity is the principal
thematic element in these two novels, and the two most striking
manifestations of this are first, a reiterated, though usually implicit,
sense of "foreign-ness" (or otherness), and second, constant depiction

of the power and effects of human desire. It is as difficult for the

reader to avoid these features as it is to ignore the most pervasive
image, the one already referred to in my title: silence.

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Let us consider "foreign-ness." In El libro vacio, the narrator is a

self-styled "hombre comun" 'ordinary man' (17) who has no wish to

write because he has nothing to say, but who nevertheless does write

because "quierfe] notar que no escrib[e] y quier[e] que los demas lo

noten tambien" he wants to note that he is not writing and he wants
others to note it too' (14). (Though this is by no means the first time
that an author has written about writing, this novel may well be unique

in its preoccupation with not writing.) He goes on to justify his

starting a novel at this juncture after resisting the temptation to do so
for twenty years by explaining that:

hay algo independiente y poderoso que actua dentro de mi,

vigilado por mi, pero nunca vencido. Es como ser dos. Dos que
dan vueltas constantemente, persiguiendose. Pero a veces me he
preguntado ^quien a quien? Llega a perderse todo sentido. Lo
unico que preocupa es que no se alcancen. Sin embargo debe
haber ocurrido ya, porque aqui estoy, haciendolo.
there's something independent and powerful operating inside me

that I'm watching over but cannot control. It's as if I were two
people. Two people who go around in circles all the time, chasing

one another. But sometimes I ask myself who's chasing whom.

There comes a point where it doesn't make sense. My only

concern is that they don't catch each other. Still, it must have
happened because here I am, doing what I'm doing. (13)
"Me siento ajeno a mf' 'I feel a stranger to myself,' he admits (31,
my italics), for half of him"lo subterraneo" 'the underground part'

(13)plagues the other half remorselessly. The outcome is that he

feels obliged to initiate a fight which, inevitably, he must be eager to
win even though he is aware from the outset that "no emprendiendola
es como la gan[a]" 'not starting it is the way to win it' (14). He buys

himself two exercise books, the first to jot down his thoughts, the
other for the definitive version of his projected novel. The latter, of
course, is the eponymous empty book of El libro vacio, the last words

of which serve to underline the extent of his failure: "Tengo que

encontrar esa primera frase. Tengo que encontrarla" 'I have to find
that first sentence. I simply have to' (136).
From the beginning a split in the psyche of the putative author is

only too evident he is made up of two selves, neither of which is

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

essentially a part of him (30)but the reader is also made aware of

the gulf between the person who is writing (or, in a sense, not writing)

and the ambitious young dreamer that he once was. It is equally

impossible to ignore or even underplay his sense of powerless

alienation. This overwhelms him when faced with his unimaginative
wife who is incapable of understanding his insecurity and confusion,
his two childrenone uncomprehending, the other whose admiration
of him constitutes a kind of straitjackethis colleagues at work, and
even his fellow man in general: on the one occasion that he attempts
a serious conversation with a stranger he is rebuffed.2 What all this
comes down to is the portrait of a subject who is a foreigner in his own
land: to others he is the Other, a circumstance of which he is only too

conscious. However, the Other, who ultimately constitutes what

Freud designated das Unheimliche, the strange or foreign or uncanny,
simultaneously resides within him.

Josefina Vicens' second novel, Los anos falsos, boasts another

male narrator, and this is a point of interest since this too may be
thought to indicate the presence of the foreign Other within the author

herself. But for the moment let us consider the unhappy nineteen
year-old who, in telling his story, reveals an extraordinarily fragile
sense of identity. For the last four static years, the false years of the
title, he has been obliged to act as a substitute for his dead father.3 His

lack of an integrated personality is obvious as the novel opens: he is

accompanying his mother and sisters on their annual excursion to
what he sees as his own tomb, but which is actually that of his father.
"Todos hemos venido a verme" 'We've all come to see me,' he

explains; "me recibo en silencio y me agradezco las flores que traje"

'I greet myself silently and say thank you for the flowers I've
brought.' Nevertheless, he goes on to say that "[r]ezan por el" 'they
pray for him' (141).4
Like the protagonist of El libro vacio, he makes valiant efforts to
avoid becoming the dupe of his internal "foreigner," though this term
may seem inappropriate in this case since it alludes to a dearly-loved

and admired father. (Two examples of his struggle to resist are

perhaps enough: first, although he bears his father's name, he refuses
to share his nickname; second, he commissions a cross to be placed on
the tomb in the full knowledge that his father would have disliked its

design.) However, it is painfully difficult for him to maintain any

autonomy or control over his identity when he is constantly

confronted by others who demand that he be what they want him to be:

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"el hombre que sostiene la casa" 'the man of the house' (144). As
more than one metaphor materializes, this phrase comes to mean that
he will actually become the father who will always live within him.
Needless to say, he subsumed this alien identity on his father's death
four years earlier: before that they had been two different people with

clearly delimited functions and roles within the family and the
community and in the world. Little time had passed though before the
boy almost mechanically dug a hole in the still-soft earth of the tomb

"lo suficientemente amplio como para que [su padre] pudiera salir y
[el] entrar" 'big enough for his father to get out and for him to go in'

(170). This, he tells us, is what has happened: they have changed
places. And yet they have not quite done that; they have, rather,
merged, which is indicated by the fact that now his fervent desire is to

be six years old again so that he can again listen to the words of a

beloved someone who was incontrovertibly and objectively a

different person (208).

It is the confused awareness of "foreign-ness" that most

obviously signals ontological tension, but indications of the workings

of desire are also suggestive. Obviously, El libro vacio is colored by

the narrator's yearning to know how to {saber) write in order to be
able to (poder) write and there are several short disquisitions on the
novel.5 But a longing to become an integrated being, free and open to
all possibilities, is evident too, together with the wish to escape from
isolation by means of meaningful and authentic communication with
others (45), to be forgiven for "rotting," or stagnating as time passed

(13), andperhaps most important of allto acquire a consolatory

sense of identity.6 At one point the protagonist attempts this by means

of the creative gaze of recognition emanating from a new love:

indeed, he decided to accept her invitation in the first place, he says,

"no precisamente para encontrarme con ella, sino conmigo mismo"

'not to meet her, exactly, but to meet myself (90).
There is a notable similarity between this search for a whole and

recognizable self and that which is found in Los anos falsos. The
protagonist of the second novel is little more than a child but is almost

equally preoccupied by the inexorable passage of time: "un dfa

cualquiera .. . uno deja de ser lo que era" 'one day you just stop being
who you were' (150). Though change is beyond his control, he claims
to be eager to repair unsatisfactory relationships, to be reconciled
with his mother and sisters (who had always been treated with disdain
both by him and by his father, 149), and to distance himself from the

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

retinue of suspect toadies connected to the politician for whom his

father had worked (142). An impossible task.
The connection between these often unexceptionable desires and
ontological insecurity might be suspect were it not for the fact that,

paradoxically, the two protagonists are simultaneously prey to

incompatible, conflictive yearnings. For example, in spite of his
obsession with literary creation, the narrator of El libro vacio keeps
insisting that he has no desire to write. When he manages to avoid

doing so for a week, he calls it "una pequena victoria" 'a minor

victory' (37) and promises abstinence for a period of six months, but
at the same time he is conscious of the pointlessness of destroying his
notebooks since he would feel obliged to describe what he has done in
writing (74). Then, although he claims to want to free himself from all
those obligations that bind him to a miserable, aimless and exhausting
lifestyle and he has frequently toyed with the idea of abandoning his
wife and children, when all's said and done he loves them; he rather

enjoys family life, in fact; freedom and independence are rather

daunting concepts, and he is not afraid to admit that he would not
know what he would do if forced to live alone. Furthermore, though
profoundly regretting the impossibility of establishing any kind of
authentic relationship with another human being, it is he who quite
deliberately isolates himself and is chronically silent, always refusing

to justify or explain himself to those he deals with on a daily basis.

Therefore he feels alone, even lonely, but ironically this is exactly

what he wants because a solitary state indicates a distinctive,

individualistic and special condition. (It is worthy of note that in his

daydreams he underlines the respect and admiration manifested by

others when they discover that he is a writer.) In the end, the

distressing and rapid passage of time does not prevent him from
waiting and hoping for something to turn up, even if this is no more
than a "blanca e inutil espera" 'a white, pointless waiting' (161). Even
his desire to know who he is is constantly undermined by a not entirely

disagreeable sense of being interchangeable with everyone else.

Throughout the book it is emphasized that he is an "ordinary man"
who lacks "la medida" ('the measure,' his favorite term) in order to
become somebodythe raw material is not there, it seems. "Siempre
habra nuevos Jose Garcia" 'there will be plenty more Jose Garcias,'
he maintains (57) with a certain perverse pleasure, and when he
claims that he and his workmates are, in a sense, a colleague who has
been accused of petty larceny, it might be thought that this rather

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moralistic statement suggests that the anonymity of communal life

can be consoling.
As for the protagonist of Los anos falsos, althoughas we have
notedit has occurred to him to attempt to improve his relationship

with his mother and sisters, everything he says demonstrates the

permanent and irrevocable nature of his alienation from them. He
cannot forget that he used to feel suffocated by his mother's embraces
and he is scornful of the fact that she invariably spoke to him in terms

that were "mimosas y tontas" 'arch and stupid' (146); that when his
sisters, twins whom he describes as "flacas y feas" 'skinny and ugly',
were born he was absolutely disgusted (148); that his greatest desire
had always been to go on a long journey with his father, leaving the
three women at home; and that the family had always been divided
(149). Furthermore, the women continue to irritate him: they cannot

understand his sensitive feelings, much less share them ("no

entienden nada" 'they don't undertsand anything,' 195). They treat
him with a submissive respect which he not only finds disagreeable
but which is also quite unnerving because it shows that they are
incapable of recognizing him for what and who he actually is. With
his father's death "se murio toda mi familia" 'all my family died,' he
says (187). Then, his political career offers him little hope of release;

although he is remorseful because he deceived someone he

considered a friend with "el falso y estupido relato de [sus] parrandas
y [sus] "influencias" 'false and stupid accounts of his drinking sprees

and his connections,' his inner foreigner, that is to say his father
("somos complices" 'we're in this together,' 194) persuades him to
go on showing off and talking pompously of his intention to "pisar
fuerte . . . y llegar muy alto" 'be ruthless and go places' (175). It is
when the friend reminds him that they are "cuates" 'pals' that he

decides to sever relations with him. All this happens as he is

attempting to find out just who he is, vacillating between a desire to
be his father, which is so pressing that he begins an affair with his
father's ex-mistress, and the need to conform to the dictates of his

own personality ... if such a thing can be said to exist.

A close reading of both texts reveals the presence of what can only

be called a state of mental disorder in their protagonists, and some of

the disconcerting symptoms may be familiar to many people even if
it is unusual to find all of them co-existing in one subject and at such

an intense level. Nevertheless, the novels could conceivably be

classified as portrayals of the unfathomable nature of the human

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

psyche and left at that if it were not so obvious that the desires
depicted in their pages are little more than signifiers. What is vitally
important is that all of them, even the fundamental longing to acquire
and be able to recognize individual identity, are directed towards the
undeniably knowable, be this human, tangible or abstract. This is the
reason why, using as my starting point the psychoanalytic theories of
Julia Kristeva, I would suggest that the basis of these desires-with-a

predicate is Desire itself, the vital, life-giving force which has no

predicate. It is, of course, difficult to avoid reference to the current

debate between those who espouse the concept of rationalist

discourse and the rationalist model of the self and those who insist on

the power of desire itself, but in the case of the novels of Josefina

Vicens, it is not particularly fruitful to spend time on the

consideration of whether reason should control desire (as Western

philosophical tradition has generally maintained) or defending the
counter-tradition.7 What is more relevant is to emphasize the presence

of desire and to try to establish its connection with the effects

described in the narratives.

If desire is indeed a life-giving force, then it is less a question of

the human need to be somebody than of a need simply to be. Its

varying objects will therefore constitute mere metonymic, or
displaced, values (it should go without saying that this does not mean
that they lack signification) and the only force capable of putting a
limit on desire will be death, although we should not forget Lacan's
dictum that with death comes the eternalization of desire, not its
satisfaction.8 Lacan also located that alien desire which dwells in the

center of our being, with its "text" repressed, and has referred to an
inevitably contradictory and conflictive psychic split, similar to those
that may have attracted the reader's attention in these novels, when

elaborating on the concept of internal alienation. Any acts or

manifestations, he claims, which one observes in oneself without

being able to establish a connection to the rest of one's mental life will

have to be judged as if they belonged to someone else.9

Although the theories of Julia Kristeva regarding internal

"foreign-ness" are almost certainly the most helpful in any attempt to

create some sort of shape in this ontological puzzle (there is no

possibility of solving it definitively, of course), there is another point
to be borne in mind before turning to them, and that is that at the same

time that a subject desires, an effort is constantly, but perhaps

unwittingly, made to avoid the satisfaction of that desire, since

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satisfaction would (seem to) be the equivalent of self-destruction. ("A

veces pienso si esta angustia no sera la gran angustia del miedo a la

muerte" 'Sometimes I wonder if this anguish might be the great
anguish which is the fear of dying,' muses the non-writer of El libro

vacio, 34.) Desire "consists in its refusal to be constrained by the

satisfactions that would extinguish it," according to theorists such as
Leo Bersani and Julia Kristeva.10 The selection of one single object of
desire would constitute a totalizing action and this is something that
many people, including the protagonist of El libro vacio, are unable to
limit themselves to. He in particular has never been able to choose one
chocolate from a selection in a box and when he was young he had not
even been capable of deciding which of two equally attractive sisters
he wanted as his girl-friend. In the case of the box of chocolates, he

would keep the one he had taken "pero [su] deseo permaneci'a en los
otros" 'his desire stayed with the others' (75). "Lo queria todo," he
admits, "y no me resignaba a elegir, porque la eleccion significaba un

corte al total anhelado" 'I wanted everything, and I couldn't resign

myself to having to choose, since choosing would mean a split in the
longed-for wholeness' (77). So it is that he has no option but to be a
writer who does not write because the written word would
compromise him, and the adolescent narrator of Los anos falsos has to

become his dead father, but without abandoning his own self." In a
sense, something in the frustrated author of the first novel has
deliberately selected a particular field of frustration; his internal
stranger presumably (and erroneously) supposed that "an ordinary
man" would never be able to write anything, would have nothing to
say and would therefore be incapable of satisfying his desire. "Yo no

acepto mi medida humildemente" 'I don't accept my measure with

humility,' he assures us, but this reveals that at least he believes that
he recognizes his own insufficiency. The basis for the dualism of the
narrator of the second novel is even more obvious, for all he had been
obliged to do at the most traumatic moment in his life was to listen to
the voice of his own filial admiration and love and combine it with the

constant observations of othersfamily, friends and, later on, his

mistresson the subject of his resemblance to his father and the need
to replace him.
There is a difference between the two situations which does

appear to be rather important: in the first novel the protagonist's

desire to be a writer comes, apparently, from an autonomous element
which he cannot in any way control but which is incontrovertibly part

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

of him; there is no question of external interference on the part of

others who are indisputably others. However unlikely it may appear,

this means that he can still conserve some power over the situation
and his life in general. He is more or less consciously going towards
what he calls "una derrota buscada, hasta anhelada" 'a sought-after,
even longed-for defeat' (14). This is not so in the second narrative.
There is much more emphasis here on the impotence of the tyrannized
protagonist, who behaves as if mesmerized by his recognition of the

desires of others. Even so, he does espouse these, thus intensifying

that part of his own suffering (itself a life-giving concept since it
connotes the lack which in its turn leads us to desire) which has its

basis in ambivalence. However, even ambivalence can be judged

ontologically positive; it may suggest "not incapacity, but power. It

encompasses contradictions and conflict. . . . [It] represents an

opening to experience, it includes rather than excludes."12
Kristeva's thesis, which she has elaborated in various texts but in

its most detailed form in Etrangers a nous-memes, is that the

symptoms suffered by real foreigners, or exilesnostalgia for a
particular time and place, hatred towards others and themselves
(which is actually consolatory in that it provides a certain consistency
and authenticity), a sense of being hated in their turn and reduced by

others to passive objects, feelings of isolation resulting from their

supposed free individualism, an inability to discover what they think

("soy un hombre de tantas verdades momentaneas, que no se cual es

la verdad" 'I am a man of so many shortlived truths that I can't tell
which actually is the truth,' admits Jose Garcia, in Vicens' first novel,

58), a tendency to pre-empt their own exclusion by excluding

others are based on the fact that we are all strangers to ourselves.13
And the equally disconcerting and revealing reaction to foreigners of
human beings who are actually in situ confirms her views:
Etrange ... cette experience de PabTme entre moi et 1'autre qui me
choque je ne le per9ois meme pas, il m'annihile peut-etre parce

que je le nie. Face a l'etranger que je refuse et auquel je

m'identifie a la fois, je perds mes limites, je n'ai plus de
contenant, les souvenirs des experiences oil l'on m'avait laissee
tomber me submergent, je perds contenance. Je me sens "perdue,"
"vague," "brumeuse." Multiples sont les variantes de l'inquietante
etrangete: toutes reiterent ma difficulty a me placer par rapport a
1'autre, et refont le trajet de 1'identification-projection qui git au
fondement de mon accession a l'autonomie.

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[SJtrange is the experience of the abyss separating me from the

other who shocks meI do not even perceive him, perhaps he

crushes me because I negate him. Confronting the foreigner
whom I reject and with whom at the same time I identify, I lose

my boundaries, I no longer have a container, the memory of

experiences when I had been abandoned overwhelms me. I lose
my composure. I feel "lost," "indistinct," "hazy." The uncanny
strangeness allows for many variations: they all repeat the
difficulties I have in situating myself with respect to the other and

keep going over the course of identification-projection that lies at

the foundation of my reaching autonomy.14

The movement goes in both directions. If it is true that we are

strangers to ourselves, that the foreigner is within us, then the

"foreign-ness" of the Other will disturb us. Furthermore, we

ourselves are foreigners to everyone else.

Now it is quite obvious that for Josefina Vicens "foreign-ness" is
a metaphor rather than a literal indication of the condition of an exile
who may (as Kristeva suggests) be considered a traitor to the home
territory. Even so, I feel that Kristevan theories will help us to classify
the orientation of the psyche of the author's creations, for at the same

time that both Vicens' protagonists see themselves as strangers to

others, they are conscious of the uncanny presence of the stranger
within. At first glance, the fact that the protagonist of El libro vacio
determines not to write in the first person singular seems to be merely

a sign of his interest in novelistic technique, but it also draws the

reader's attention to the non-existence of a complete person capable
of homogeneity of expression. Moreover, like the adolescent in Los
anos falsos, we note that he is between two languages, just like the
geographic stranger: Kristeva points out that in this situation the only
possible result the only element, the only "realm" will be silence.
When the non-writer in El libro vacio thinks about his two selves

and the struggle between them, which he categorizes as "evidente y

violenta" 'obvious and violent,' it occurs to him to intervene and
pacify the situation. "Yo quisiera, naturalmente, darle la razon al que

opina que no debo excribir. Y se la daria si lo dijera con lo unico que

eso puede decirse: el silencio" 'Needless to say, I'd like to support the
one who thinks I mustn't write. And I'd do so if I said it in the only

way it can be said: with silence' (30). In effect, as he confronts the

world, this silent condition resembles that of the adolescent in the

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

second book. There are invariably two languagesthe two referred to

by Kristevaand fundamentally they are that of the truth,

impenetrable but yearned for, and that of falsehood, or inauthenticity.

"Escribo falsedades" 'I write untruths,' admits the first protagonist

(54), only to add: "mi deseo es decir la verdad siempre, aqui, en este
cuaderno tan mio" 'my wish is to tell the truth always, here, in this
exercise book which is so much mine' (73, my italics)that is to say,

the book of (his) life. However, the definitive text has still to be

written because truth is a transcendental absolute for which there is no

comfortable place in human life.

There are also several examples in Vicens of different languages

which connote otherness on more superficial levels. One is found
during the trial of the first protagonist's colleague, Reyes, whose
response to the judges is silence. "Hizo bien" 'he did the right thing,'
claims the protagonist, for "la realidad de ellos es distinta, su lenguaje
es otro" 'their reality is different, they speak another language' (103).

Then he and his son cannot share any elements of vocabulary and
syntax because of the so-called generation gap (85); the same is true,
though this time for reasons of class and ideology, when he finds
himself in the company of some macho sailors ("lo importante era
hablar como hombre y tratar con rigor a las mujeres" 'what was
important was to talk in a manly fashion and treat women ruthlessly,'
108). He cannot find the language for everyday discourse or for the
creation of that ineffable, miraculous thing which would be a great


There are actually three levels of silence which constitute some

kind of response to the impossible in El libro vacio. The first is
manifest in the introspective behavior of the protagonist, a man of few

words (either spoken or written) who will not reply to the

observations or question of others and who dedicates all his free time

to writing, the most silent pastime imaginable. The second level is

made up by the writing itself, which is voiceless: to write is to remain

silent. But the final, absolute, silence is indicated by the (apparent)

fact that the protagonist does not even manage to produce a mute text.

In Los anos falsos, we have another quiet, elusive and

introspective character, but the author also makes explicit mention of

silence on more than one occasion. There is, too, a plethora of related,

perhaps interchangeable, negative concepts in this novel: indolent

passivity ("Como siempre, yo no hago absolutamente nada" 'As

always, I do absolutely nothing,' 141); the colorless (like the flowers

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taken to his father's tomb, the narrator's color "esta casi por
despuntar" 'is on the point of transformation,' but no-one knows into
what, 141); the indistinct (he is pleased that climbing plants have all
but obliterated the insciption on his father's tomb, 142); the absence
of life (he describes his own face as "sin vida" 'lifeless,' 152); and the
solitude of someone who not only does not feel as if there is anyone
who understands him but also that he himself understands nothing at
all. And like the non-writer of the first novel, he desires wholeness.

However, he has even less power than the other protagonist, as we

have already pointed out, and in spite of his youth, he does realize
this. He knows, tragically, that the only way for him to achieve
wholeness is through death. "Tengo derecho," he says to his dead
father, "ya que no lo tuve a la vida, a tener una muerte entera. . . .
Enteramente mi'a" 'I have the right, since I had none to life, to have a
whole death. One that is wholly mine' (208). His short life, that is to
say the four years since his father left themor, more accurately, did
not leave themhas been forcibly divided between two sets of drives,
to use the Freudian term.16 It has been as silent, passive, colorless and
indistinct as that of the protagonist of El libro vacio, but he suspects

that "el morir es un silencio que tiene que ser escuchado" 'dying is a
silence that demands to be heard' (154).
The titles of both novels contain negative adjectives: that the
book stays empty (non-writing) points to the nothingness that Paz was
referring to in his letter; then, in their turn, the false years connote

non-living. But to an extent this negativity is deceptive, because in

fact the non-writer does produce a text, even though it may not be the

magnum opus that he was aiming for, and this text represents a
struggle which does not end because its basis is desire, the predicate
of which, if it has one at all, is survival. When we leave the main
character, he is suffering from insomnia and wants to get on with his
writing (136), in spite of his sensation of internal "foreign-ness" and

his "temblor permanente" 'constant trembling' (34). On the other

hand, the last word of the narrator of Los afios falsos is "Amen" (208),
which appears to his mother and sisters to be a sign that he endorses
their prayers, but which actually marks the end of his expression of a
desire to die in order to become a whole entity rather than have to go
on tolerating a divided self.
So it is that the similarity between the two novels does not include

their endings. The outcome of Los afios falsos is irremediably

negative; what is impossible in this world can only be resolved

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

beyond its limits, if it can be resolved at all. On the other hand, were
we to answer the question put by the son of the protagonist of El libro

vacio, "^Acaba bien [tu historia]?" 'Does your story have a happy
ending?' (31), we might well say yes, and with a certain amount of joy

at that, for as Kristeva has observed, "des que les etrangers ont une
action ou une passion, ils s'enracinent. Provisoirement, certes, mais
intensement" 'as soon as foreigners have an action or a passion, they
take root. Temporarily, to be sure, but intensely.17


1 Octavio Paz. "Carta prefacio," in Vicens, El libro vacio. Los an

falsos (9). All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
2 Significantly, he explains that one of the reasons why he treats his

so badly is because her equilibrium and simplicity irritate him and b

he loathes "las gentes [como ella] que no son enemigas de si misma
'people [like her] who are not their own enemies' (20-21).
3 There has been no movement in "este tiempo . . . que no [le] perten
y no transcurre" 'this period of time which doesn't belong to [him
which doesn't pass' (142).
4 This linguistic format is reminiscent of another novel which deals
a psyche of doubtful integrity: Jose Donoso's El obsceno pajaro de la
(1970). For example, "a mi me guifta un ojo y yo le guifto el ojo del Mud
'she winks at me and I wink the Mudito's eye back at her' (27).
5 He considers, among other topics, Formalist ostranenie (thou
eschewing the term) and the creation of emotion via language (17); the a
of writing and reader reaction (17, 18, 24); the technique of charact
construction or, if this proves impossible, typology (26); the uselessn
language as an authentic signifier (60); the gulf between the pompos
his written style and his simple speech (71); his diffidence regardin
self-indulgent impropriety of describing the lives of others (99, 103
the compromising nature of written language (118).

6 He points out that he loves the self that does what he doesn't want t

most of all because it separates him from that stubborn, hermetic no tha
him in thrall (29).

7 See Eugene Goodheart's Desire and its Discontents for a stimul

discussion of this polemic. I am indebted to him for both ideas and
terminologyfor example, the concept of desire without a predicate, which
he rightly attributes to Bersani and Kristeva (adding that for them "[d]esire

moves, floats, negates, shatters, aspires, it is itself a subject," 2), and the
phrase "the rationalist model of the self' (1).

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8 Baudrillard writes of a state of "evanescence and continual mobi

in which "it becomes impossible to determine the specific object

needs.... The flight from one signifier to another is no more than th

reality of a desire, which is insatiable because it is founded on lack. A

desire . . . signifies itself locally in a succession of objects and ne

Goodheart (Desire) refers to "unlimited desire" which he jud

equivalent of Schopenhauer's Will (8).

9 For the views of Lacan, see Felman (137) and Ragland-Sulliva
10 Goodheart {Desire), 2.

" The difference between the written and the spoken word is
emphasized, for "[l]a expresibn oral y el pensamiento tienen una esencia

efimera que no compromete" oral expression and thought have an

ephemerality which does not oblige you to commit yourself (118).
12 "Lack" is the basis for another current polemic. One view is located

when we discover that "schizoanalysis ... attacks the fundamental Lacanian

notion of lack' head-on by arguing that, rather than being intrinsic to the
structure of subjectivity, lack is imposed on or injected into subjectivity by

strictly social (and hence historically variable) forces." (Holland, "The

Ideology. . ." in Ethics/Aesthetics, 60.) The author has invented the term
"Lackanianism" to describe the theories of North American Lacanians. For

those who agree with the "schizoanalysts," the social condition of Vicens'
characters will hold more interest; I suggest that lack does indeed form an
intrinsic part of subjectivity and that what changes with sociohistoric forces

is the nature of the objects of desire. The views on ambivalence are

Goodheart's (52).
13 Kristeva, Etrangers a nous-memes!Strangers to Ourselves, passim.
14 Kristeva, Etrangers, 276; Strangers, 187.
15 Although the protagonist speaks little, we find out exactly what he
would say were he, for example, to abandon his family.
16 The Freudian term is, of course, Triebe (pulsiones in Spanish) which
is usuallyand incorrectlytranslated as "instinct(s)."
17 Kristeva, Etrangers, 19; Strangers, 29.


Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford:

UP, 1989.

Donoso, Jose. El obscenopajaro de la noche. Barcelona: Seix Barr

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Letras Femeninas, Volume XXII, Nos. 1-2 (1996)

Felman, Shoshana. Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight.

Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture. (Cambridge MA: Harvard
UP, 1987.

Goodheart, Eugene. Desire and its Discontents. New York: Columbia UP,

Holland, Eugene W. "The Ideology of Lack in Lackanianism." Ethics/

Aesthetics. Post-Modern Positions. Ed. Robert Merrill (Washington
DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1988.
Kristeva, Julia. Etrangers a nous-memes. Paris: Gallimard, 1988.

. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York:

Columbia UP, 1991.
Ragland-Sullivan, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanaly
sis. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Vicens, Josefina. El libro vacio. Los anos falsos. Mexico City: UNAM,

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