5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint. Toscana’s cleverly created characters, one bound to please and the other to disappoint, ultimately challenge the reader’s surface-level assumptions. Also challenging is Toscana’s stream-of-consciousness prose, translated by Asa Zatz. The novel does not employ quotation marks to distinguish between dialogue and the other text. This forces readers to tread carefully, especially when Lucio offers everyone direct quotes from his favorite books. As with many of the challenges and frustrations in Toscana’s book, this device serves a bigger purpose, eliminating the distance between Lucio’s total obsession with the fictional world and the readers’ own blind acceptance of Toscana’s words.

Thus, Toscana’s challenges to the reader are far more purposeful than arbitrary, and the result is that the clever little book (some will argue too clever for its own good) has won numerous awards, most prestigiously being shortlisted for the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize. And the journey to the novel’s astounding conclusion, if rigorous, is hardly painful. Toscana’s rambling, and at times distancing, prose occasionally tips toward the luscious:

There is nothing like the smoothness of [Remigio’s] avocadoes, for which reason, on some nights he throws a few in the bed and stretches out with them. He offers them caresses, flattery. They are lovers with supple hands and noticeable breasts, disposable lovers, no name, no obligations, and no future, because they wake up squashed on the sheets after having sacrificed everything for love. The avocado was the fruit of temptation, without a doubt, although people liked to believe it was the apple, an inept whore with a smooth skin but a rigid body, sticky, no discretion in biting, which gets old all at once and consorts with flies and other insects. He knows that his girl is better off [buried] under the avocado tree.

If Lucio occasionally gets lost in his favorite prose, well, perhaps we cannot blame him. But this is entirely Toscana’s point: he has crafted a novel specially for bibliophiles, a novel that highlights the perils, perversions, and joys of losing oneself in a fantastic book.

5 July 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sara Cohen on David Toscana’s The Last Reader, which is translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz and available from Texas Tech University Press.

Sara—a summer intern and student here at the University of Rochester—is working on reviews of a few books in Texas Tech’s Americas Series. We wrote about this series a few months back, and it looks like we’ll be highlighting at least one of their forthcoming titles in the not-too-distant future.

But more on that later. For now, here’s the opening to Sara’s review of Toscana’s novel, which was shortlisted for the Romulo Gallegos International Novel Prize and won the National Colima Prize, the Premio Jose Fuentes Mares, and the Antonin Artaud Prize.

David Toscana’s The Last Reader stands as a challenge for the most dedicated readers. On the upside, it’s a challenge worth taking. Toscana’s novella vaguely imitates a murder mystery, but the real focus lies in blurring the lines between active reading and authorship, and more generally between reality and fiction.

The Last Reader is set in Icamole, a small impoverished village in Mexico, in the middle of a yearlong drought. Wealthy Remigio takes pride (and showers) in water that lines the bottom of his well, until the day he finds the water obstructed by a teenage girl’s corpse. Remigio goes to his father, Lucio, for advice, and here we meet the titular character. Lucio is Icamole’s last and only reader. When Remigio presents the problem of the corpse, Lucio reacts with the bibliophile’s instinct—he looks to his library. He zeroes in on a French novel, The Death of Babette, whose heroine’s physical description matches that of the corpse. Lucio names the corpse Babette, and suggests Remigio bury Babette in his garden, like the killer in The Apple Tree.

With this premise, Toscana’s scheme is set in motion. Lucio, the esoteric, lovably bookish father, quickly wins our hearts. (By contrast, Remigio, selfish with his water and wary of Lucio’s advice, seems a bit more questionable.) It’s fun to read about how Lucio organizes the abandoned library with great dedication and verve. Books he likes find a place on the library shelves, but any book he deigns trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles. As he works, Lucio offers the reader tips to quickly evaluate book quality. For example, he claims the ending of a book (though not the beginning) is an effective measurement of overall quality.

With such qualifications about good and bad novels, Toscana sets up a high standard for his own novel, and yet he does not disappoint.

To read the entire review, click here.

20 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A few months ago we posted about the University of Texas Press’s decision to relaunch its Latin American literature in translation series. (And at some point soon we’ll have a full review of the first new title in the series, And Let the Earth Tremble at its Centers by Gonzalo Celorio.)

Well on Friday I found out that Texas Tech University Press is taking over The Americas series, which Irene Vilar launched at the University of Wisconsin some years ago. Irene is a successful author in her own right (The Ladies’ Gallery was translated by Gregory Rabassa to critical acclaim and her new memoir, Impossible Motherhood, will be out from Other Press later this year), and has put together a killer advisory board and is relaunching the series with a number of interesting titles.

Up first is David Toscana’s The Last Reader (translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz), which releases in October and sounds interesting:

In tiny Icamole, an almost deserted village in Mexico’s desert north, the librarian, Lucio, is also the village’s only reader. Though it has not rained for a year in Icamole, when Lucio’s son Remigio draws the body of a thirteen-year-old girl from his well, floodgates open on dark possibility. Strangely enamored of the dead girl’s beauty and fearing implication, Remigio turns desperately to his father. Persuading his son to bury the body, Lucio baptizes the girl Babette, after the heroine of a favorite novel. Is Lucio the keeper of too many stories? As police begin to investigate, has he lost his footing? Or do revelation and resolution lie with other characters and plots from his library? Toscana displays brilliant mastery of the novel—in all its elements—as Lucio keeps every last reader guessing.

Other forthcoming novels in the series include Breathing, In Dust by Tim Z. Hernandez, Symphony in White by Brazilian author Adriana Lisboa (and translated by Sarah Green), and Chango, the Baddest Dude by Colombian author Manuel Zapata Olivella (and translated by Jonathan Tittler). All of these sound really interesting—especially the Lisboa. She was selected by the organizers of the Bogota World Book Capital as one of the thirty-nine highest-profile Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine, and she also won the Jose Saramago Fiction Prize for Symphony in White.

More importantly, it’s great to see this series coming back to life, and to see Texas continue to be one of the hotspots for translation.

....
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