Review


Plants Don't Drink Coffee by Unai Elorriaga

by Kera Yonker

This deceptively slim volume metes out the big stories of four individuals in simple and elegant prose. Each character is in search of something: a blue dragonfly, a rugby field, a lost love, an answer. It begins with young Tomas who is on the hunt for the elusive blue dragonfly – once caught Tomas believes it will give him the particular intelligence he seeks. Tomas views his world through the lens of a camera tightly focused on the things he sees: a blue dragonfly, a lodestone used to pick up fallen needles in his aunt’s sewing shop, the brief and rare interactions with his sick father in the hospital. 

Interspersed in Tomas's tale, Elorriaga's lens widens and refocuses on Tomas’ family members' narratives, keeping the same innocent, infectious voice she begins with Tomas.  Their own searches are driven by their individual passions, spanning continents and decades.  Simon is a rugby-obsessed uncle who stealthily turns a golf course into a rugby field where a fantastic match is later held. Piedad is an old woman who writes letters to her dead lover of forty years. Each of these characters offer not only their own perceptions of life but insights on the value of patience and persistence. 

Tomas’s cousin Mateo's search provides the most poignant reward of these ancillary narratives. Mateo is thoughtful book thief who leaves notes in place of the books he steals. On one such mission he meets a friend of his long-dead grandfather. The friend tells Mateo of the great carpentry for which his grandfather was known, and of the carpentry competition he entered in 1927. Before he can discover who won the competition and if his grandfather was named Europe’s greatest carpenter, the old man ends his story and moves on. Mateo begins his search for the outcome, and it leads him not just to the answer, but a lesson in family history. When he finally discovers the outcome of the competition, he faces this question: “And what were the Marx brothers, señe, winners or losers? And Giuseppe Verdi?”  That is to say, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game, and in this novel, that game is life.

****

Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Unai Elorriag

ARCHIPELAGO PRESS, 2009