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trite (including the amusingly obvious anti-racism manifesto The Color of Heaven) or otherwise lacking gets marked “Withdrawn” and thrown into a cockroach-infested “book hell” with other rejected titles.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.

Comments are disabled for this article.


The Last Reader
By David Toscana
Translated by Asa Zatz
Reviewed by Sara Cohen
192 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780896726642
We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

A Dilemma
A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .

Read More >