David Toscana – The Last Reader (transl. Asa Zatz)


"Nobody else shared his interest… by the time opening day of the library came, the people were full of arguments against books: books are concerned with things that don't exist, they are lies. If I put my hands near the fire, one man said, I get burned; if I stick myself with a knife, I bleed; if I drink tequila, I get drunk; but a book does nothing to me unless you throw it in my face. Others laughed at this sally, and the matter was settled."

– from The Last Reader

Wish I could recall where I found this little gem. More than likely I uncovered it during one of my endless Amazon searches. Some days I keep following those if you like this, you may also like… lists for such a length of time I'd be embarrassed to admit it. But I sure do find some fine reading that way. And this book is proof positive.

In the tiny village of Icamole, Mexico it hasn't rained for a year. The locals do their best to scratch out a living, relying on water delivery from a nearby town located on a mountain ridge that seems to always stop rain from reaching Icamole. Life there is understandably difficult.

When a beautiful young girl from a nearby village is found murdered in the bottom of a young man's well he is mystified, not just at how she got there, but also by her perfect beauty. Remigio, who owns the land, is the son of Lucio the town librarian. After he retrieves the body and lays it out in a more dignified manner, he hurries to town to ask his father what to do.

Lucio, who like Don Quixote, lives his life through the books he reads, immediately refers to this young girl as Babette, comparing her to a similar character in a book he's read. He tells his son to bury her beneath his avocado tree, letting her body become one with the roots. It's a romantic notion he picked up from one of his favorite novels.

Lucio, working unpaid in a position that doesn't officially exist anymore (the officials had stopped paying him months ago), is the town's sole reader, working his way through boxes of books still arriving from who knows where. If one tiny thing about a book offends him in any way he shoves it into a hole in a door to a dark, closed up room, where, he assumes, bugs will consume the useless, unwanted books. If he loves a book, it goes on a shelf. Day after day he opens the library. And day after day no one comes for a book.

"Burning seems to him an inappropriate form of punishment, for it confers upon an inane book the utility of producing heat, the distinction of being converted into light. Hell must be that which consumes slowly, between urinations and mandibles that tenaciously disintegrate book covers, dust jackets, authors' and authoresses' photographs with the intellectual pose of the former and the wishful beauty of the latter. The bugs have to regurgitate prizes, recognitions, and, particularly, bogus praise singling out each book as a consummate model of prose style…"

The police, portrayed as somewhat bumbling, but somewhat threatening, come to Icamole in their investigation  into the girl's disappearance. The town braces itself, worried who in this tiny village could possibly have done what the police presume happened, murdering this beautiful young girl. And Remigio continues to tend the avocado tree, petrified the dirt beneath it will look disturbed, standing out from the hard-packed, drought hardened landscape. And the investigation goes on.

The book is less about the murdered girl, though that is a strong element, than the eccentric Lucio. His wandering mind – stuck in the fiction he reads – is really at the heart of the story. Everything else winds itself around that. The result is one of those poignant-yet-funny tales I love.

There are so many beautiful lines I could quote, some heart-rending, some laugh out loud funny. The book is filled with sticky notes with my favorite passages. Choosing which to include here is difficult, but I'll leave it with a quote near the end, in which Lucio imagines his dead wife suddenly returns to him:

"When they finally reach the front of the house, Herlinda stops short in surprise. A library? I thought you were selling goat feed. I'll explain later, Lucio says, embracing and kissing her, begins to fondle her. Many things have happened, Herlinda, and there is still a lot left for us to read.

He is in a hurry because he knows that a scorpion will be back any night to tear his wife from his arms, from the earth, knows that some bad day he might open another carton of books and come up with Herlinda's Death, and then there will be no way of avoiding the tragic fate assigned her by its author…"

The rest of the paragraph I won't quote. I'd rather you read it for yourself.

  • Hardcover: 188 pages
  • Publisher: Texas Tech University Press (October 22, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0896726649

* I read a library copy of this book.

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