July 2009

Erica Wetter

fiction

Plants Donít Drink Coffee by Unai Elorriaga, Translated by Amaia Gabantxo

Here are some of the things that Tomas, the young protagonist of Basque writer Unai Elorriaga's brilliant and original book, knows: Plants don't drink coffee. If someone calls on the telephone asking for his dad, the only things he must say are: "No, he isn't here," and "Dad is in the hospital." And, according to his cousin IŮes, whoever finds the rare blue dragonfly, Orthetrum coerulescens, of which Tomas estimates there are only seven or nine in the world (not eight, because he doesn't like that number), becomes the most intelligent person in the world. Of course, Tomas can't pass up an opportunity to become the smartest person on the planet, and so the hunt is on, with the lightweight prose of Elorriaga (author of A Tram to SP, winner of Spain's Premio Nacional de Narrativa) carrying the charming tale swiftly forward.

Naturally, Tomas isn't the only character looking for something. His quest to find a blue dragonfly is matched in its passion and perseverance by the relatives with whom he is staying while his dad is in the hospital. His likable and eccentric Uncle Simon spends his time finagling himself a spot as a linesman in an international rugby match, and also covertly creating a rugby field on the local golf course. Meanwhile, Tomas's cousin Mateo is determined to track down information about his grandfather Julian, a prankster of a carpenter who may or may not have won the 1927 title of best carpenter in Europe. Though these may seem like inconsequential ventures, all three characters are so quirky and endearing, it's impossible not to get wrapped up in their efforts to obtain their goals.

In fact, there isn't a character in the book to whom you wouldn't want to listen in detail, as when Simon friend's Gur holds forth on his theory of mad birds. According to Gur, there are mad birds, just as there are mad people, which makes the scientific study of birds futile. Also not to be overlooked is the elderly woman Piedad, who sits down every day to write a letter to the deceased lover she mysteriously never married. Tomas's narration is mostly pitch-perfect in its imitation of the literal-mindedness of a youngster beginning to make sense of the world. There are a handful of moments when he is attributed with actions or speeches that seem more advanced than his mental level would suggest (maybe it's due to the translation, but "textiles" is an awfully adult word for someone obviously so young). However, for the most part Tomas's blunders and leaps in logic succeed in being simply cute. "Insects are: butterflies, beetles, and dragonflies, and they are 200 million years old," he explains. "That's why insects are so small, because they are very old. . . . Piedad is an old lady I know. And she is very, very small, because she is so old." But Tomas's distorted perception of the world around him shifts from funny to poignant when it comes to the question of his dad, whose health can be deciphered only by reading through Tomas's naÔve and telling comments. For all its playful storylines and experiments in style, the book is shadowed by questions of mortality.

On the whole, Elorriaga's Plants Don't Drink Coffee is a smartly written tale about a family of nutballs trying to sort things out. In Tomas's case, he's quite literally trying to figure out what means what in the world, just as Mateo is attempting to unravel who he is and where he comes from. What Mateo discovers, and this isn't giving anything away, seems to sum up the book: "his aitite was a bit of an anarchist. That was the reason his mother was the way she was. And the same went for Aunt Rosa. And his sister IŮes. And himself too." That anarchism is precisely what makes this book both comical and moving.

 

Plants Don't Drink Coffee by Unai Elorriaga, Translated by Amaia Gabantxo
Archipelago Books
ISBN: 0977857689
200 pages

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