I had the pleasure of reading Plants Don’t Drink Coffee at the end of 2009, and it was a rather delightful way of ringing out the year. As Chad Post over at Three Percent noted in his preface to the review I published for their (phenomenal, one-of-a-kind) site, the author, Unai Elorriaga, is one of only one or two Basque writers to have been published in English. So all due credit to the curatorial prowess of Archipelago Books, who have brought out many really wonderful translations over the years from underrepresented countries and regions.
The full text of my review is below; you can also read it on the Three Percent website here.
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.