Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, Basque author Unai Elorriaga’s first novel to be translated into English, spins four intersecting tales about the magic of everyday life. Narrated by Tomas, an earnest young boy and several other members of his sweetly eccentric family—including a rugby-obsessed uncle and a talkative teenage cousin with a flair for entomology—Elorriaga’s fanciful narrative captures the slight, quotidian dramas of small town life and imbues them with the clear-eyed wonder of a fairytale.
With his father seriously ill in the hospital, Tomas finds himself spending most of his summer days at his aunt’s home, helping his cousin Iñes collect insects for a class project. But one particular specimen eludes the pair, no matter how many ladybugs and beetles and grasshoppers they catch. The Orthetrum coerulescens: the blue dragonfly. Explaining to Tomas that “. . . there are very few blue dragonflies in the world, nine or seven, or fewer still . . .” Iñes hopes to impress her teacher by catching the rare insect. “But not only for that reason,” Tomas explains. “There is another reason too.”
This is what Iñes told me and her eyes were full of mystery when she said it: “The person who catches the blue dragonfly . . .” she said and then she went quiet. And then she did this thing with her lips, and turned them upwards and downwards, and that always means she is about to reveal a mystery, a big one, and then she added: “. . . becomes the most intelligent person in the world.” . . . This is why I want to be the one to catch the blue dragonfly. Iñes doesn’t need it. Iñes is already intelligent. Not me. This is why I want to be the one to catch Orthetrum coerulescens. To be like a doctor. Because doctors are the most intelligent people in the world.
While Iñes and Tomas search for their dragonfly, several other quixotic occupations consume their family and friends. Uncle Simon is secretly creating a rugby field on a local golf course. Cousin Mateo is investigating stories about his prankish grandfather, Aitite Julian, who just may have been the greatest carpenter in all Europe. Then there is Piedad, an elderly woman who visits Aunt Martina’s dress shop each day to talk about her lost love, the famous English architect Samuel Mud.
Through these small, earnest dramas, the reader becomes immersed in the complexity of each character’s life—the moments and people which have indelibly defined them. Theirs are stories of reconciliation and loss, affirmation and understanding. But while each of their experiences may be familiar—the death of a parent, the loss of a lover, the realization of an unlikely ambition—Elorriaga renders each with a quirky individuality and a refreshing lack of irony. The sense of innocent discovery that accompanies Tomas’ daily pronouncements—”[S]ome people wear glasses. Fish don’t wear glasses, but people who wear glasses and fish are similar because they both can’t see well.”—is equally present in Uncle Simon’s persistent calls to Ireland, volunteering his services as a rugby linesman. In the mischievous carvings on an armoire built by Aitite Julian. In Piedad’s strawberry-patterned dresses and imaginary cat named Samuel Mud.
Replete with small joys and charming revelations, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee will delight readers with its simple wisdom, delightful prose, and capricious cast of steadfast dreamers.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .