Several years ago, many of us were charmed by a quirky French novel called The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Well, here’s an equally amusing and entertaining novel now available in English by Basque novelist, Unai Elorriaga’s Plants Don’t Drink Coffee. The two novels have nothing in common other than their whimsy, though Barbery’s story ends on a much darker note than does Elorriaga’s. Perhaps that major difference is simply the result of Elorriaga’s narrator: a young boy, six or seven years old, named Tomas.
It is Iñes, Tomas’s older cousin, who starts him on a quest. In an extended family of geniuses, Tomas has already determined that he wants to be the most intelligent of them all. Iñes, who captivates him with her collection of insects, tells him that the blue dragonfly, Ortheyrum coerulesens, is so rare there only may be seven or nine in the whole world. Tomas explains the reason for the skipped number: “I don’t like the number eight at all, that’s why I figured there must be seven or nine blue dragonflies in the world.” Worse, if only seven or nine exist, Tomas concludes, “If there are nine in the whole world, then maybe there are three in our country. Because the world is very big, but our country isn’t so big. Well, our country is quite big too, but I don’t think there can be more than two or three blue dragonflies here. Four maximum.” The passage is an example of Tomas’s obsession with figuring things out, typical of much of the narration in the novel.
Iñes also tells Tomas that “The person who catches the blue dragonfly … becomes the most intelligent person in the whole world,” to which he adds, “That’s what she told me. And this is a secret that almost no one in the world knows and it’s incredible. But it’s true. Iñes told me.” Perhaps gaining that intelligence will also help Tomas understand the most difficult thing in the world: licorice. “I don’t understand licorice. Sometimes I stare and stare at licorice and there are two things I don’t understand. The first thing is: What goes in the mix that makes licorice? And the second thing is: Who invented licorice.”
Obviously Tomas doesn’t have Google at his reach. The time frame of the novel is unclear, perhaps twenty or thirty years ago, but with sequences involving the other important characters that loop back eighty or a hundred years. There are numerous references to historical figures, mostly artists, such as Samuel Beckett, Erik Satie, André Breton, Gustav Klimpt, and others, but most of those names are mentioned by Tomas’s uncles, aunts, and cousins. His father, Erroman, is dying and in a hospital for much of the story, but the other adults follow their own eccentric quests.
Uncle Simon, for example, and his sidekick, Gur, are surreptitiously making a rugby field on part of the local golf course, even though soccer is the sport that the local men pursue. The two old men have to drag sacks of lime onto the golf course after dark when no one will observe them. Tomas has other relatives who say that Simon is mad, because a rugby game has never been played in the town.
Simon, at least, seems rational, but Gur has his own obsession with birds. As he rattles off to Simon, apropos of nothing as the two of them are marking the lines for the rugby field, “I think mad birds exist as well. Just like there are mad people, there are mad birds too.” Ornithologists who study birds, for days and days, eventually publishing their notes in fat books, probably don’t realize that “the crow they’ve been observing was a mad one, maybe, and its habits are not the habits of a normal bird, but the habits of a mad crow. Just like people. So the book is useless.” So much for scientific research.
Then there’s Mateo who is obsessed with one of his distant relatives, a famous artisan, Aitite Julian. Much of the time Mateo spends at the local public library, working out a system to steal books so he can cut pictures out of them. And finally, Piedad, another one of Tomas’s relatives, has been writing letters for years to the man who loved her but who never married her.
Tomas is the glue, connecting these and several other eccentrics, because it’s through his thoughts that we understand much of the narrative and observe the foibles of the other characters. Life, religion, maturation (even for a child) and, above all, understanding unite all of the events in the story and the obsessions of others as well as his own. If there is any weakness in the novel, it is that all of the major characters think and speak the same, with little or no variety to their voices.
So does Tomas ever catch his blue dragonfly? Do Simon and Gur ever get to watch a rugby game? Does Mateo ever learn the complete story of his Aitite Julian? Those are questions with answers as complex as Tomas’s attempt to understand spirits: “Spirits are like people, only they don’t work and they don’t shower, and they’re made of rubber, like gummy bears. And they are more intelligent than people, because they’re dead, and stronger than people, because they’re made of rubber, like gummy bears. And I think some of them fly, and others walk. Most of them are dead, like Jesus, but they continue doing things, and more than anything they go for walks. And I think spirits and the Holy Spirit are not the same thing. They have a similar name, but they’re not the same thing. I’ve never seen them. Or the Holy Spirit.”
Tomas’ attempt to fathom spirits provides the context for answering the questions above, though—like Tomas himself—readers will need think back to their own childhoods and accept the mysteries of life without the comfortable explanations of adulthood.
The translation by Amaia Gabantxo is dazzling.
Plants Don’t Drink Coffee
By Unai Elorriaga
Translated by Amaia Gabantxo
Archipelago Books, 200 pp., $16
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.