By David Liss
New York: Random House, 2003
ISBN # 0-375-5084-6
389 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2011

Set in 1659, we are thrown into the extremely complex, yet fascinating struggles within the commodities market of Amsterdam. Miguel Lienzo is one of the traders, but down on his luck having lost a good deal in the sugar market. However, he is introduced to coffee by a very mysterious woman, and, at her urging, he concocts a daring and bold plan to get super rich by cornering the market in this relatively new brew for Europeans.

While traders rely on careful knowledge of the commodities markets, they are always looking for ways to get a leg up on other traders and to even carefully, knowingly and purposefully to mislead them. Miguel is not above this, nor are his competitors, and the novel takes us into this cut throat business that has no shinning saints including Miguel.

There are two primary groups of traders who tend to have little to do with one another. There are the Dutch traders who communicate in Dutch and relatively keep to themselves. Then there is a large number of mainly Spanish and Portuguese Jews who communicate in Spanish and/or Portuguese and have relatively little to do with the Dutch.

The dominant power player within the Jewish community is the Ma’amed, a Jewish council that watches over the orthodoxy of Jews and can banish any who do not carefully conform to Jewish law as they see it. One of the pathetic characters of the novel is Solomon Parido, an enemy of Miguel and a Parnass – a member of Jewish Ma’amed. Parido’s hatred of Miguel was related to Miguel’s ruining his planned marriage to Parida’s daughter, and then birth of damaged child.

The cast of MAJOR characters mounts and one has a hard time keeping up with them all. They include not only Miguel and Parido, but Miguel’s brother, Daniel, with whom he lives, but who disapproves of his lifestyle, and Hannah, Daniel’s lovely wife.

There is also the fascinating Alonzo Alferonda, one of those Jews who has been condemned and ousted by the Ma’amed and he is bitter about it, wanting revenge.

There are other major characters in this incredibly complex novel and they read like characters out of some dream sequence of villains. Geertruid Damnuis, a beautiful, aging woman of the streets who never is quite what she seems and her much younger bodyguard, Hendrick, who is not remiss to use his enormous bulk and basic meanness to deal with any one who might cross Geertuid.

We also deal with a central player, Joachim Waagenaar, a Dutch man who believes he has been cheated by Miguel and has vowed revenge, and to recover his loses. Yet another player in this list of characters for which we almost need a program is the young Isiah Nunes, a Jewish trader who can rather easily be swayed by the money and power of the more experienced members of the trading circle.

The troubles among all these characters have to do with money, religion and personal relationships, yet everything centers around the Dutch commodities exchange in Amsterdam, and the profits to be had there if one can handle the pressure and get the advantages. I’m one who has never paid much attention to markets of any sort, and I was quite lost in the complexities of such things as the futures markets and buying on margin and such, so, despite the author’s attempt to explain these things I was always a bit perplexed on the mysteries of the trading itself.

However one of my favorite passages came in the market when Miguel has been discovering the boost to one’s awareness and power that comes from drinking coffee. Often the traders seem a bit befuddled from drinking wine. But Miguel made a rather brilliant move in selling whale oil when he had been drinking coffee and first felt the utter exhilaration caused by it. Not only the lure of the money he might make, but the power of this coffee itself is his turning point.

His heart pounded. His breathing came in quick rasps as the prices fell around him: fifty guilders, then forty-eight, forty-five. He had sold at precisely the right moment. Seconds later would have cost him hundreds. The doubt that had been plaguing the sluggishness, the murky thinking, were all gone now. He used coffee to banish them the way a great rabbi uses the Torah to banish demons.
Miguel felt as though he had just run all the way from Rotterdam. Everything had happened so quickly, it had all whirled around him in a murky coffee haze, but now it was done. The space of a few frantic moments had yielded a pure profit of eight hundred guilders.
He could barely keep himself from laughing out loud. It was like waking from a nightmare when he would tell himself that the terrors of the dream world were not his; he need not worry any longer. This debt that tormented him might as well disappear in the wind; that was how little it now mattered.
He hadn't planned it, but Miguel grabbed a young broker a fellow fresh to Amsterdam from Portugal. He took this neophyte by the shoulders. "Miguel Lienzo has returned!" he shouted. ''Do you understand me? Hide your money in the cellar, fellow. It's not safe on the Exchange -- not with Miguel Lienzo here to win it from you!"

The huge cast of characters share one feature – they are all quite flawed human beings, willing to bend and break rules in their own self interest with little to no concern for how that bending and breaking will harm others, even their friends!

That feature tended to work well in this year of 2011 when I read the book since the image today of members of the various markets is one of greedy people willing to harm entire nations in order to advance their own interests. I couldn’t help but make that comparison all along the way.

David Liss is able to create tensions and mysteries to the very end of the book. One is just never too sure how it is going to turn out, and often it didn’t go the way I had wished it would go. That fact made the book more “real” for me since my tendencies tend to go toward people behaving a bit better than people often tend to do, and Liss was willing to try to create charcters who seem to behave more like people in everyday life.

The novel is suspenseful to the end and I spent much too much time in the few days that it took me to read the entire second half of the novel. I was so into it I just couldn’t do much else but read. It is a marvelous novel and I plan to very soon read other novels that he has written.

Bob Corbett


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