Monday, April 28, 2003

Liss, David. The Coffee Trader. Random House, 2003, 389 p.

Miguel Lienzo is a Jew living in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. One of a community of Portuguese Jews, Lienzo is a trader on the Exchange, the Dutch market for buying and selling commodities and futures. As the book opens, Lienzo is down on his luck. After enjoying relative prosperity and the noteriety that goes with financial success, he made some unfortunate trades that didn't work out. Now he's living a debtor's life, scambling to avoid his creditors. Then along comes Geertruid, a mysterious Dutch woman, with a proposal that Lienzo finds irresistible.

It's time to invest in coffee, Geertruid tells Lienzo. Coffee is still relatively new in Europe. Geertruid gets Lienzo to try a few cups and soon he's ready to throw in with her. When he's drinking coffee, Lienzo feels invincible. It's amazing powers give him extraordinary mental insight into other trader's behavior and soon he hatches a plan to corner the market for coffee. Geertruid agrees to lend him the money and the scheme is set in motion.

Liss paints a vivid picture of Amsterdam around 1650 and of Jewish life in the city. The Dutch are portrayed as a tolerant people with an open society that welcomes all. The Portuguese Jews fled that county when the Inquisition arrived from Spain and many of them found their way to Holland. They were able to practice their religion and way of life openly, without fear of persecution. They had their own quasi-legal system. Lienzo has a number of run-ins with it and nearly finds himself banished at one point. They were encouraged to keep to themselves and not mingle too freely with the Dutch and other Amsterdam denizens. Women were very much second class citizens among the Jews. Interestingly, they were not kept from the Exchange. Geertruide makes a couple of appearances there.

Although not a mystery in the conventional sense of there being a corpse, clues, and a murderer to be apprehended, Liss has written a book that will involve the reader in a series of riddles. Through Lienzo, we experience the sense of being manipulated, of a man not quite sure who to trust, and one who must ultimately depend on his own instincts for survival.

Read this book for an engaging history lesson that many of us have no clue about. Enjoy it for the true-to-life psychology of its protagonist. And sniff the pages for the wonderful aroma of coffee, that most wonderous of beverages that can make average men wealthy.