Wheeler-Dealers in Old Amsterdam

The Coffee Trader     David Liss     (2003)


Dutch burghers of the 17th century had original paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer hanging on the walls of their solid, comfortable houses. For me, this is reason enough to gravitate toward fiction set in Holland in this period, and indeed novels such as Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), based on the Vermeer masterpiece of the same name, have transported readers into that milieu very effectively.

In The Coffee Trader, novelist David Liss demonstrates that Dutch baroque-era burghers were not only patrons of the arts and archetypes of bourgeois life but also innovators in the establishment of modern commodity markets, with a version of Wall Street trading that was remarkably sophisticated—and treacherous. At the Exchange in Amsterdam, “Some traders came to fill orders or to sell what their ships brought into port, but increasingly men bought calls and puts and futures, trading in goods they never sought to own and would never see. It was the new way of doing things, turning the Exchange into a great gaming pit where outcome was determined not by chance but by the needs of the markets around the world.” (90)

The fictional intrepid trader of the book’s title is Miguel Lienzo, a Portuguese Jew who has settled in 1659 Amsterdam after fleeing from the Iberian Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. At that time, the internationalism of the Dutch business community made Holland one of the few places in the world where Jews could practice their faith without persecution. The downside of this religious freedom was that Jews in Amsterdam created self-imposed restrictions on their community, in order to assure the gentile Dutch that Jews would not be an economic drain or a cultural threat. A Jewish council called the Ma’amad could impose career-ending sanctions on local Jews, and this is one of the key tensions of the novel.

Miguel is surrounded by vividly depicted secondary characters, including the mysterious Dutch widow Geertruid Damhuis; the impoverished Dutch trader Joachim Waagener; the ostracized Jewish moneylender Alonzo Alferonda; Miguel’s pedantic brother, Daniel; and Daniel’s longsuffering wife, Hannah. Percolating through the narrative, however, is the inanimate character of coffee, which was just beginning to be appreciated in Europe for its pick-me-up qualities: “Hannah . . . loved the way it made her feel animated and alive. It was not as though she discovered a new self, rather, coffee reordered the self she already had. Things at the top sank to the bottom, and the parts of herself she had chained down rose buoyantly. She had forgotten to be demure and modest, and she loved casting off those constraints.” (201)

As Miguel coordinates a risky scheme involving coffee futures, the novelist presents business transactions of dizzying complexity. Some of the financial shenanigans zipped right past me, but I’m not complaining, since I could then focus on satisfying sub-plots involving a nefarious servant, an enigmatic sidekick, and an unhappy marriage.

Immerse yourself in the world of The Night Watch and the Zuiderzee with The Coffee Trader, and if you crave more 17th-century Holland, check out my review of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith.

Forced Emigration

Without a Country     Ayşe Kulin     (2016)

Translated from the Turkish by Kenneth Dakan     (2018)

In the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, German universities, funded by the government there, were highly esteemed. American students trekked off to Germany to pursue graduate degrees in both the humanities and the sciences. German research publications influenced scholars around the world. However, when Nazi oppression of Jews stepped up in the 1930s, many of the faculty in German universities and medical schools—Jews and those critical of the Nazi regime—were forced to emigrate. Although I knew these historical facts, until I read Without a Country, I had no idea that dozens of German scholars took positions in Turkey, which was building up its educational system in the years just prior to World War II.

In Without a Country, Ayşe Kulin tells the story of one German Jewish scholar and his family who leave everything behind in Frankfurt so that he can take a position in Istanbul in 1933. According to an author’s note, an actual German pathologist inspired the fictional character of Gerhard Schliemann, who lands a job in Turkey and negotiates with the Turkish government to find job placements in Istanbul and Ankara for many other German academics and physicians. Schliemann’s descendants grow up in Turkey and navigate the paths of nationality and religion in varied ways. The Schliemann family and their friends evolve not only as German/Turkish/American but also as Jewish/Muslim/Christian, some practicing, most not.

That’s the basic premise of this intriguing family saga that provides, in three sections, scenes from the 1930s/1940s, the 1960s, and then the present day. Most of the action is set against the magnificent scenery of Turkey, especially the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, city of ancient churches, mosques, and palaces. Political movements and political unrest play out in the background; I fact-checked a few of the historical references and found them to be accurate. In a sense, novelist Kulin is telling the story of modern Turkey through her fiction.

In the first section of the book readers get brief scenes depicting significant incidents in the lives of the Schliemann family. The details of their escape from Nazi Germany to a welcoming Turkey are absorbing, and the individual characters come to life. Even in the second section, Gerhard and his wife, Elsa, remain in the story as their children and grandchildren take center stage. I was disappointed, however, in the final section of the book, which shifts from third-person narration to first-person, with the narrator being Esra, the great-granddaughter of Gerhard and Elsa. The multi-generational family chronicle is diluted as readers hear little or nothing of the fates of beloved characters from previous decades. The novel would have been much stronger if the contemporary section had been expanded considerably.

Still, I recommend Without a Country for its depiction of people in a multicultural society in an area of the world that has seen much discord. As Gerhard was “without a country” when he left Germany in the 1930s, so his great-granddaughter Esra will be “without a country” if she leaves Turkey in the present day. Kulin has a keen awareness of the sacrifices, compromises, and heroism of families caught in the tumult of history.

Four Novels in One

4 3 2 1      Paul Auster     (2017)

Do not read other reviews of this novel before you read the novel itself! All the reviews--except for mine!--give away too much of the plot and spoil the revelations, good and bad.

Paul Auster has created a mesmerizing series of narratives by mixing up four novels in one book. The protagonist in all four, Archie Ferguson, bears the Scottish surname that his grandfather received at Ellis Island, but he’s Jewish American, born in Newark in 1947. His life story through early adulthood plays out in four distinctly different ways, depending on choices made by Archie himself and by his family members and friends. The author doles out these four stories in segments, taking us through the phases of Archie’s young life, and he helpfully labels each segment. (There are four versions of chapter 1, four versions of chapter 2, and so forth.)

Some elements of Archie’s personality and tastes carry into multiple stories. Archie is always a good athlete, either in baseball or basketball. He’s sexually active at an early age. One of his bed partners is Amy Schneiderman, who in different versions of the story is his stepsister, cousin, or family friend. Sometimes the Archies have the same experience, as when a professor at Columbia gives two different Archies a copy of the university’s literary magazine. In all four of the narratives, Archie seems to have a preponderance of tragic, early deaths surrounding him, including death by car accident, lightning strike, brain aneurysm, and fire.

As you read 4 3 2 1, you could make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the plot elements, but I recommend that instead you let the stories flow over you. Auster’s extremely long compound complex sentences encourage this latter approach, since the words stream seamlessly down the pages, pulling you along.

4 3 2 1 is about how everyday decisions of everyday people can have long-term ramifications, both for themselves and for those surrounding them. Within the novel, Auster has the characters themselves analyze the phenomenon of choices that change lives:

“ . . . from the beginning of his conscious life, [Archie had] the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being traveled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.”

Reading all 866 pages of 4 3 2 1 takes serious commitment. You are more likely to keep turning those pages if you enjoy novels about the 1960s in America. When I saw that Archie Ferguson was born in 1947, I immediately calculated that he would come of age in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when young American males were subject to the draft, and those drafted males were almost always sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Novelist Auster confronts this cruel fact in four different ways, and watching him do it is intriguing. Paul Auster was himself born in 1947, so he knows whereof he writes, though I would caution against reading 4 3 2 1 as a memoir or autobiography, despite the metafictional echoes of the novel’s closing pages.

One of the four Archie Fergusons, studying at Columbia University on a draft deferment, muses: "The postwar children born in 1947 had little in common with the wartime children born just two and three years earlier, a generational rift had opened up in that short span of time, and whereas most of the upperclassmen still bought into the lessons they had learned in the 1950s, Ferguson and his friends understood that they were living in an irrational world, a country that murdered its presidents and legislated against its citizens and sent its young men off to die in senseless wars, which meant that they were more fully attuned to the realities of the present than their elders were.”

Another theme that I pick up from 4 3 2 1 is the way wealth—or the lack of it—affects life choices dramatically. Here is one example, right after one of the Archies has come into some cash:

“Thousands of dollars were sitting in his account at the First National City Bank on the corner of West 110th Street and Broadway, and just knowing they were there, even if he had no particular desire to spend them, relieved him of the obligation to think about money seven hundred and forty-six times a day, which in the end was just as bad if not worse than not having enough money, for these thoughts could be excruciating and even murderous, and not having to think them anymore was a blessing. That was the one true advantage of having money over not having money, he decided—not that you could buy more things with it but that you no longer had to walk around with the infernal thought bubble hanging over your head.”

And then there’s New York City of the 1960s, conjured up by Auster with all its grit and glamor, and I can seldom resist New York novels. As one character comments, “New York is it.”

Tasting the Moon with Chabon

Moonglow     Michael Chabon     (2016)

With a review of a work by Michael Chabon, it’s difficult to avoid gushing out superlatives. Bare superlatives, however, don’t give the readers of the review a taste of the specific delicacies that are on offer in the writing. And Moonglow has many delicious bites.

It’s not a spoiler if you know that the Michael Chabon who is the narrator of Moonglow is fictional and is not the same as the Michael Chabon who is the author of the novel. And Moonglow is truly a novel, though it’s set up as an autobiographical and biographical memoir. Chabon-the-author is expert at inducing you to believe that the fiction he’s creating is really the reconstructed history of his family.

In recent interviews, Chabon-the-author has made it clear that he’s used only brief incidents from his family history as sites from which he has leapt into the fictional worlds of Moonglow. He prefaces the book with a tongue-in-cheek “Author’s Note” in which he disclaims veracity for the “facts” he presents. But as a reader of Moonglow you keep wanting to believe that Chabon-the-narrator is Chabon-the-author, against all this evidence.

The underlying premise of Moonglow is straightforward. In 1989, Chabon-the-narrator sat at the bedside of his dying grandfather as the grandfather spoke about events of his life. He was a daredevil kid in Philadelphia, an engineer with tremendous inventive capacity, an intelligence officer in Europe at the tail end of World War II, an inmate in a minimum security prison in New York State in the 1950s, a snake-hunting retiree in Florida. The grandfather (who never has any other name in the novel) was passionately in love with his wife, a Jewish French refugee ravaged by the Holocaust, whom he met in 1947. The story of this grandmother weaves in and out of the novel about the grandfather.

As with Chabon’s  Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), World War II hangs menacingly over the characters. Having wedged his grandfather in to the Allied mop-up operations in Germany in 1945, Chabon-the-author can explore alternate realities that never made it into the history books. What if, for example, a Jewish American officer with extensive knowledge of rocketry were to capture Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun? What if that officer were to uncover the trove of documents revealing the secrets of the V-2 rocket?

Speculative history is a specialty of Chabon-the-author, most notably executed, I think, in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007). In that novel, the alternate history is set up when Jews from around the world establish a homeland in Sitka, Alaska, in the 1940s, and the tale plays out for the next sixty years.

Jewish identity is a key theme for Chabon-the-author, but I see other themes also echoing through his writing: the malleability of fact, the raw beauty of the everyday, the strength of the human spirit in the face of evil (in other people or in the international order). A trademark stylistic device of his that I especially admire is what I call his “extended list,” in which he ranges through all the possibilities of a situation. Here he’s describing sleeping conditions for soldiers in war-torn Europe:

“My grandfather had shared all manner of billets: with dogfaces and officers, in misery and in comfort, in attack and in retreat, and pinned down by snow or German ordnance. He had bedded down under a bearskin in a schloss and in foxholes flecked pink with the tissue of previous occupants. If an hour’s sleep were to be had, he seized it, in the bedrooms or basements of elegant townhouses, in ravaged hotels, on clean straw and straw that crawled with vermin, on featherbeds and canvas webbing slung across the bed of a half-track, on mud, sandbags, and raw pine planks.”

Mimicking the discursive flow of reminiscence, Moonglow see-saws through the life of the grandfather, constantly shifting time and place, occasionally returning to the 1989 scene of the grandson feeding Jello to the dying man. Chabon-the-narrator does not set down his grandfather’s words verbatim but rather casts the episodes he recounts in third person. This technique allows Chabon-the-author to insert astonishing detail. One of my favorite scenes has the grandfather, who does not usually observe religious rites, stopping at a Reform temple on a Friday to pray the kaddish, the prayer of mourning. The congregation is housed in a building that was formerly an International House of Pancakes. As the service goes on, the grandfather feels distant from the other worshipers:

“They might have been strangers in a bus station, solo travelers bound for all points. They might have been separate parties at a pancake house, awash in the syrup emerging from a Wurlitzer organ, played by an old Jew with a Shinola-black pompadour, dressed in a curious tan coverall or jumpsuit and platform saddle shoes.”

Oh, that’s just a taste. You should savor the entire book.