One Portuguese Jew’s Caffeinated Story of Suspense

By Saul Austerlitz

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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The Coffee Trader

By David Liss

Random House, 384 pages, $24.95

* * *

Blending financial intrigue with historical fiction, David Liss has emerged with his second novel, a compelling mystery titled “The Coffee Trader.”

The tale takes place in Amsterdam’s community of conversos, 16th- and 17th-century Portuguese Jews who, after being forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition, fled to the tolerant Dutch metropolis. More specifically, it is set in the nascent Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the bustling home of a new generation of proto-capitalists, engaged in speculation, commodities trading and investment partnerships.

Miguel Lienzo, like many of his fellow countrymen, has gone into this murky business. After enduring a number of financial setbacks, he is on the lookout for a big score to return him to prosperity. Just then, he is approached by his gentile friend Geertruid Damhuis, a flirtatious, mysterious Dutch widow who claims to have learned of a burgeoning, untapped industry gaining market share in European capitals: the coffee trade. She proposes a partnership in which she supplies the capital, and Miguel supplies the business savvy and connections.

Miguel agrees, knowing that his new partnership puts him in grave danger. He has already run afoul of the Ma’amad, the Jewish governing body in Amsterdam. Deeply conservative in its outlook, the Ma’amad closely restricts dealings between Jews and non-Jews, wielding the threat of excommunication regularly. Miguel feels the lurking menace of the Ma’amad with every step, its pessimism and intolerance an echo and inversion of the Inquisition’s brutality. He knows he must keep his new deal a secret, both to avoid religious censure and to maintain his business edge.

“The Coffee Trader,” poised on the cusp of the world-shaking events of European history and the development of capitalist society, posits the introduction of coffee as the tipping point, the small shove that catapulted Europe into the modern era. Liss joins together coffee and business, with the former the engine driving the latter. “Miguel’s heart pounded in the thrill of trade. It was just as Geertruid had said — the coffee was like a spirit that has taken hold of his body. He heard each cry with clarity; he calculated each new price with instant precision. Nothing escaped his notice.”

The complexities of this embryonic capitalist maneuvering spiral out of control, and the bulk of the novel is concerned with Miguel’s attempts to maintain the secrecy and integrity of his coffee investment while fending off attacks from his numerous and murky enemies. Chief among his pursuers is Solomon Parido, a leading figure in the Jewish community and a member of the Ma’amad. Angered by a failed attempt at marrying his daughter to Miguel, Parido seethes with unbounded hostility and resentment toward the new coffee trader. Miguel must also ward off his brother, Daniel, who regards him with barely disguised contempt; the ever-unknowable Geertruid and her companion, Hendrick; and the Ma’amad, whose power to forcibly remove him from the company of his fellow Jews is a continuous fear. There is also Daniel’s wife, Hannah, whose gentle beauty possesses a compelling pull on Miguel.

A constant reminder of the dire consequences of angering the Ma’amad is Antonio Alferonda, an amoral trader whose witty, breezy first-person narration anchors alternating chapters of “The Coffee Trader.” (In tone and style, Alferonda’s bantering voice is reminiscent of another Portuguese cad, the titular narrator of Machado de Assis’s “The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas.”) Placed in excommunication by the Ma’amad, Antonio is a lovable rascal. Outside of society’s grasp due to his already-dire punishment, Alferonda maintains his own quirky moral compass. Neither hero nor villain, he is a businessman through and through — a prototype of the future capitalist model. Alferonda’s narration comes into focus toward the end of the novel, revealing the web of entrepreneurial intrigue, which is far too tangled to be fully perceived by anyone, Miguel included.

The double-dealing and duplicity of Miguel’s friends and enemies keep him, and the reader, on edge, urgently curious to know whether Miguel’s schemes will prove successful, or if the shadowy intrigues taking place on the book’s fringes will overwhelm his efforts. Liss adeptly joins the traditional suspense-thriller framework with his well-researched re-creation of 1659 Amsterdam, crafting a cumulative mood of obfuscated machinations on the canals of that watery city. Liss has a fine eye for the telling of historical detail, from the gaudy, bright-hued dress of the Portuguese traders to the acrid, fishy smell of Amsterdam’s cobbled streets. A nighttime trip to the shadowy Rasphuis, the debtor’s prison, is a gem of Dickensian detail, providing a frightening glimpse of the dank underbelly of the Protestant work ethic.

Nevertheless, the book is at times hampered by clunky prose and awkward dialogue. Liss’s attempts at imitating the speaking rhythms of his characters come off like third-rate theater, possessing little of the fire of genuine speech.

Most of these deficiencies, though, are overcome by Liss’s compelling commerce-suspense narrative and its potent central metaphor. Miguel, realizing the enormity of his endeavors, utters a silent, hasty prayer that stands as the book’s heart, embedding a deep understanding of the mixed blessing to come: “May the Holy One, blessed be He, forgive me for unleashing coffee upon mankind. The drink will turn the world upside down.”

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer based in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Sun, Cineaste and Cinemascope.

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