‘The Coffee Trader’ by David Liss


Any coffee lovers out there? I hate coffee, and, refreshingly, so does the coffee trader of this book initially. He considers the potion ‘the Devil’s piss’. A pleasant reminder of how Jewish religion and culture has been present in and shaped Northern European history. 

To a casual observer, Miguel is a happy man, who appears soft and childlike. He enjoys being generous with his money, hosting dinners, supporting good causes, buying favours from prostitutes, gambling and such like. Miguel also finds great pleasure defying authority. He is also an outsider in wealthy Amsterdam. He is Jewish and Portuguese, and determined to succeed in this new country. But lately our main character has been down on his luck. Again and again, he has been knocked down in the mud, by the inquisition, by his wife’s death and, most recently, by financial ruin. Miguel has been debtor for the past six months, he is living in his brother’s basement, and other traders avoid as if he has the plague. He has also managed to offend one of the most powerful leaders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam – Parido. In short, life is only getting worse for Miguel. Who will be Miguel’s Good Samaritan? Who will offer him a helping hand?

It turns out to be the drink-loving, clever and liberated Dutchwoman called Gertrude. She comfortable in her hedonistic lifestyle, but has a keen eye for good  business opportunity. She has discovered this new drink called coffee, and is convinced that it is the drink of the future : You can enjoy it, but you will not get drunk. It will keep you wits and body in top shape – it is the perfect drink for a trading nation like the Low Contries! Gertrude is also convinced that Miguel is the man who can make her venture succeed.

There are two other point-of-view characters in the book, in addition to Miguel. Hannah, Miguel’s catholic raised, Portuguese sister-in-law, who has a hard time adjusting to her new religion, country and miserly uncaring husband. She has no control of her life whatsoever – she is even being blackmailed by her own kitchen maid! So, the lively and kind Miguel is becoming more and more attractive to her, each passing day in her eyes. There is also Alferonda, a usurer who, unbeknownst to Miguel, owes his life to our main character. And so has decided to help him along.

So, we have a risky trading venture, a potential love-triangle and a hero we can cheer for. An excellent recipe for a thrilling book. But in addition to this conflicts within and between Jewish communities of Amsterdam. The Portuguese Jewish immigrants are largely prosperous, with their own costumes and traditions, and they do not look kindly opon the poor Tudescos, Eastern European Jews, arriving in their town, asking for help. It has been decided that to hand out charity would only encourage the migrants, better to give them a boat ticket so they can become someone else problem.

A few weeks past, I followed Jacob de Zoet to Japan and the final days of the Dutch East India Company. In this book,  the company is young, in its prime, a dangerous giant guarding its coffee monopoly jealously. Amsterdam is not a small town to be casually grabbed by Napoleon, but a wealthy multicultural metropolis. Even if it stinks of dead fish and is troubled by flooding. 

Do not tell us tell us that a character is brave, give us a situation in which we are shown a character’s bravery. Show us, don’t tell. Imagine that you a song with a nice enough melody, but whose lyrics were praises of the melody’s beauty? Does that praise make the melody better or the song good? No. It is the same with books, and sadly in this book, the author occasionally falls into this trap. Not constantly, but often enough for it to become annoying. If the last page tells us how Miguel hated having to lie left and right in order to survive in home country, and then on the next page we are told that he has developed a nerdy interest in romantic and daring stories about cheeky rogues and liers, then we can make the connection ourselves. Dear author, you need not spend several long sentences where the character’s interests stems from!! If a character gives Miguel a hint, you need not say: ‘Miguel was surprised by the hint because so and so’. Just say: ‘Miguel was surprised’. 

But apart from these complaints, you will love spending some time in the stock exchange, the taverns and merchant homes of Amsterdam with Miguel. 


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