The Last Reader Hardcover – Oct 22 2009
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"Deserves to join the ranks of the great Latin American authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Amado. - New York Times Book Review Introduces American readers to a gifted writer who seems poised to inherit the postmodernist mantle of Carlos Fuentes. - Kirkus Reviews"
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- from The Last Reader
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.
We grow up with stories about the society and culture we live in. We hear and absorb stories told by our friends, by strangers, and by institutions such as news media. Some stories are deliberately crafted in order to guide and shape our perception of reality. With other stories, the influence on our perception is more by accident. The stories that have influenced us over the years affect how we perceive and interpret our own experiences and the actions of others.
Lucio weaves the story of the dead girl from various strands of village society, and from Mexico more broadly. The man who finds the body in his well does not inform the police, perhaps because he fears that he, too, would suffer the fate that another man, also innocent of the crime, later suffers in Lucio's story. The girl's mother comes to accept the girl's death because she finds Lucio's story powerful. Or perhaps she is merely another imaginary element of Lucio's story.
The language of the English translation is lyrical and light. This slim volume provides a fun afternoon of reading, and many hours of reflection on how our lives are driven by stories .