The Mexican writer David Toscana uses a familiar map of Latin America’s solitudes to chart an unfamiliar narrative course
The Last Reader
David Toscana, translated by Asa Zatz
2009, Texas Tech University Press
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
MEXICO is a good place for exploring the dust-swept hinterland between the imaginary and the real, and if David Toscana chooses to describe his narrative perspective as “unrestrained realism” by contrast with magic realism, that’s fine, for it still sets out to explore the strange condition of that hinterland’s abandoned inhabitants.
If Toscana’s style differs from what has gone before it is not because it ignores the illogical scenarios that colour otherwise realistic landscapes, but because his focus remains squarely on the latter and just how strange reality itself can be. It is a subtle reemphasis, but one that is accomplished with all the artifice of a great writer.
The bizarre is rendered entirely plausible by the author’s devastating insight: he retreats into the mind of his protagonist, whose refusal to genuflect to the distasteful reality that assaults him opens a door to a philosophy of the everyday that we all reluctantly recognise. The author has been quoted as saying: “When writing, what is important for me is keeping an eye on the concrete experience of life.”
The ideas of the Chilean José Donoso, one of Toscana’s stated influences, and in particular that of a subject incapable of interacting with the outside world, seem evident. Lucio, the librarian of the remote town of Icamole and the “last reader” of the book’s title, is that subject, walking a tightrope between fantasy and reality that hints at a fundamental existential angst in the uncertain realm of ordinary life.
Shades of the Uruguayan Juan Carlos Onetti, another of Toscana’s influences, and in particular anguish about the lonely futility of relationships, are also apparent. The solitude of northern Mexico is particularly well suited for such personal drama, empty as it is of affection, justice, success, and even words. The cockroaches eat the punctuation marks in Lucio’s books, but like the townsfolk themselves, have no literary sensibilities, despite his attempts to lure them with honey to certain flourishes.
In The Last Reader, Lucio’s son Remigio finds the body of a teenage girl in his well amid this deserted landscape and turns to his father for guidance. The librarian finds answers to their problems in his stories as the police descend like the vultures that populate the skies of this godforsaken pueblo.
In its Spanish edition, El último lector won three awards – the National Colima Prize, the José Fuentes Mares and the Antonin Artaud Prize, and was shortlisted for Latin America’s most important literary award, the Rómulo Gallegos.
Toscana’s crafted prose, demonstrating an intimate understanding of the foibles and fears of his characters, helps to explain why – distinguishing him as a skilled narrator able to speak in the emotional vernacular and articulate authentic irony. Asa Zatz’s compelling translation renders El último lector in English with all the nuances and emotional intelligence with which it was written.
Toscana’s insight derives, in part, from his knowledge of his native Nuevo León, which he has described as a treasure trove of material for his books. The state’s sophisticated industrial north sits in an almost unreal contrast with its rural south, which is punished by frequent droughts that represent serious obstacles to viable agriculture.
As in Icamole, life is contingent upon the supply of water. It is no coincidence that the dead girl is found in the only well that has not dried up.
Thirst is a perfect device for exploring the oppression that afflicts the people of northern Mexico, whose own water collector, the hapless Melquisedec, is devoured by the forces of the state and replaced with a fickle, wasteful clown in charge of a government water truck. In Icamole, water brings death, not life.
The Last Reader appears to capture this at times darkly humorous tension between the city and country, state and pueblo, literate and illiterate. It straddles eras effortlessly like the great works of magic realism, situating Mexico in an historic present with a recurrent past. It opens a pioneering new route into the most fertile areas of Latin America’s many solitudes that, henceforth, readers will be unable to pass by.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books