It is amazing that a scoundrel like Migue Lienzo should be the main character of The Coffee Trader. After all, he frequently visits hookers, he drinks, he gambles (well, on the Amsterdam stock market), he brings people to their ruin and plays political games with a fever.
Why, then, should Miguel be such an appealing character, appearing to be benign and religious? Possibly the fact that he has been chased from Portugal as a Secret Jew has something to do with it. Or the fact that, currently, he is down on his luck and living in his brother's basement, which is flooded every day by the Amsterdam canals, which, in 1659, still had a direct connection to the sea. But most likely, it is because through his eyes, we can see the Amsterdam of three and a half centuries ago, and we can share his wonder at this city coming of age.
The Coffee Trader is a book with many faces and because of that, it makes you yearn for more, of each of them. I never knew there was such a difference between the acceptance of the Jewish religion in Amsterdam as opposed to Portugal or England. Miguel has spent most of his life going to a Catholic church, if only to convince others that he was not a Jew; only to attend secret religious meetings at night, reading the Torah. Possibly even more shocking is the story of Hannah, his brother's wife, who lived as a devout Catholic in Portugal as well. Only on her wedding day was she told that she was, in fact, Jewish, and should now follow the Jewish religion.
As the family now lives in Amsterdam, we watch the city as it grows from a stinking swamp into a lively centre of international trade. Miguel shows us the Bloemenmarkt, the Nieuwe Kerk and the Oude Kerk, Houtgracht, all of which are still landmarks of Amsterdam today.
As a foreigner, Miguel also marvels at the difference in human interaction in Amsterdam and describes it in great detail, giving us more insight in the culture of those ages. Miguel himself is quite gifted with an ability to talk himself out of any situation and manages to sail through any cultural hiccups with ease.
As if living in a strange city, getting accustomed to the new rules of expressing his ancient religion, is not enough, Miguel engages in a daring business scheme. With shipments of any precious goods taking weeks, if not months, speculating on the future price of any good is a dangerous, but potentially lucrative game. Having tried his luck with whale oil and sugar, upsetting some powerful enemies on the way, he now lays out the complex plan to take over the coffee market.
The book offers quite some suspense, increased by the writings of Alonzo Alferonda, one of Miguel's Jewish friends, now an outcast of the Jewish community. Knowing that he is doing some of the masterminding behind Miguel's back, unbeknownst to the latter, makes your toes curl.
I genuinely missed a map of old Amsterdam to better imagine what the city looked like then. In all honesty, the book should have been twice the number of pages to work out each of the storylines in full, but the life of Miguel and his becoming a respectable Jew was the main and exciting storyline for me.
Very good read, making me want to visit Amsterdam again soon.