The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader - David Liss What I liked:It is my second David Liss novel and I'm admiring this writer more and more. Liss meticulously recreates the 17th century Dutch city of Amsterdam fully based on historical documents – really it seems that the author completed exhaustive research if you only consult the list of his sources, provided at the beginning of the book. He brings Lienzo's world to life in great detail, as well as the workings of the bourse which are indeed very similar to modern commodities markets (but fortunately there is no trade of whale oil anymore - shudder, poor whales).The complex storyline, chock full of intrigue, is really compelling but, what’s even more praiseworthy, the author didn’t repeat the scheme from his first, very successful book – no murder mystery here, only coffee, business and some romance as well. The characters are as three-dimensional as I like: Miguel, actually, is a surprisingly nuanced figure but also Alonzo the usurer and Hannah, the wife of Miguel’s brother, Daniel, contribute greatly to the story showing how Jewish immigrants were treated by Dutch people and their compatriots as well. It seems that being Jewish in Amsterdam during the Golden Age was extremely difficult for more than one reason. For instance, Miguel must be careful not to scorn the Ma'amad, the restrictive and mysterious governing body of the Jewish community. He must also be wary not to conduct business with the Gentiles, something extremely forbidden during the mid-1650s. Hannah has to wear demure black clothes and she cannot go out without her head veiled although Dutch women, married or not, parade along undisturbed in provocative, bejewelled caps and colourful dresses. Her husband doesn't want her to learn how to read and write although Jewesses coming from the East are allowed to do so.I was also delighted by the fact that the author didn’t avoid tensions inside the Jewish community itself, between Jews coming from the Southern and Eastern Europe. In short all events are portrayed quite realistically. In fact, a couple of secondary characters suffer badly from unintended consequences of Miguel’s shadowy actions - it adds a subtle but gritty moral note which plenty of other historical novels lack. I even cherished the fact that for most of the time Miguel doesn't exactly know who to trust. In some ways his uncomfortable position emulates very well the risks that investors take today in dealing with high finance (but bear with me - no matter how boring it might sound to you I studied economics after all).Finally there's also something very readable about the prose style. Although the plot is hardly easy to follow you simply don’t want to put this book down until the very end. Two POVs (well, in fact even threes if you count some short glimpses of Hannah's world) make it even more interesting.What I didn’t like:I wouldn’t call it a serious drawback but I have to mention it - the main character, Miguel Lienzo. A well-rounded, real-life hero, I admit it, but not exactly very likeable. Let’s face it – as a protagonist he has very few redeeming qualities - he is charming and handsome and well...ambitious...I fully understand him being an embodiment of a businessman of any age - a man who would lie, steal, cheat, plot, deceive, gamble and hoodwink if only it might bring him some profit – but, in the end, you are not exactly sure whether you want him to succeed or not. How can you fully sympathize with somebody who, even if only for a moment or two, seriously considered killing his own brother (no matter how obnoxious) in order to run away with his pregnant sister-in-law and yet, at the same time, never wasted any occasion to screw (there is no nicer word for it) any pretty young maid in his proximity or to visit a whore? I know, I am speaking from a rather female point of view…I bet plenty of guys would find nothing wrong with this perfectly realistic behaviour but still I can’t easily condone it.By the way I wonder whether we really deal here with the uncle of Benjamin from The Conspiracy of Paper - the same surname but I am not completely sure as other facts don't exactly match. Final verdict:Overall a very intelligent reading. If you are a coffee fanatic like myself and you like good historical fiction with a dash of finance and trade then by all means go out and get yourself a copy of The Coffee Trader. Just don’t forget to brew or buy yourself some coffee too – believe me, you will crave it even more. If people at Starbucks knew their business they would sell this book along with their drinks.