When the Plot Becomes Subtext

  When was the last time you read a Basque novel? The charmingly-titled Plants Don’t Drink Coffee by Unai Elorriaga drew me in by its name alone, and the narration on the opening page was just goofy and endearing enough to make me turn the page and continue. The narrator is apparently a child talking about how he’s learned to make café con leche, and as he explains how to the reader, references to Uncle Simon and Aunt Martina pepper his comments. You begin adding up the clues. The child narrator appears to be staying with his cousins.

I’ve had this kind of reading experience before. Is there a name for it? The text rattles along about something in the foreground, dropping little bits of information that the reader assembles into the plot, which is glimpsed in the background. The fun for the reader comes in figuring out what’s happening.

It’s taken me 125 pages to figure out that there are two different boy heroes, Mateo and his cousin, and at least four plots: narrator Tomas’s search for the blue dragonfly which makes you intelligent, Uncle Simon’s making of a rugby field at night on the golf course, old Piedad’s remembered love affair with architect Samuel Mud, and Grandad Julian carving sixteen rosary mysteries instead of fifteen into a rich woman’s three-doored armoire. The Tomas sequences are narrated first person. Uncle Simon and his son Mateo are told in third person. The two stories from the past are put together from Aunt Rosa’s sewing room conversations and a tale from an old man in the library.

It’s like a Bunuel film with a touch of the Three Stooges.

For instance, you don’t know why exactly Uncle Simon has lured his brother and sidekick and son out into the golf course at night to make measurements. It seems like pure insanity. You think maybe they’re designing a runway for a small plane’s drug shipment drop-off. Only twenty pages down the line do you discover their maniac plan, when they begin using a line-machine to make bold white lines defining the rugby field.

So for inventiveness and energy, this little translation from Archipelago Books has much to recommend it. I do notice that I’ve fallen out of the spell at this point, that no character’s fate has me worried enough to continue reading any farther. Dozens of characters and lots of plot confusion can be engaging and creative, but I think I’m going to leave little Tomas with his cousins and move on to other fare. Cleverness only goes so far. A book group would have nothing to discuss except straightening out the little plot-points underneath the babbling narration – “Oh, so there are three sisters, then, not just two – Aunt Martina and Aunt Rosa and little Tomas’s mother? What’s her name?”

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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