Amsterdam, 1659: On the world’s first commodities exchange, fortunes are won and lost in an instant. Miguel Lienzo, a sharp-witted trader in the city’s close-knit community of Portuguese Jews, knows this only too well. Once among the city’s most envied merchants, Miguel has suddenly lost everything. Now, impoverished and humiliated, living in his younger brother’s canal-flooded basement, Miguel must find a way to restore his wealth and reputation.
Miguel enters into a partnership with a seductive Dutchwoman who offers him one last chance at success—a daring plot to corner the market of an astonishing new commodity called “coffee.” To succeed, Miguel must risk everything he values and face a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to see him ruined. Miguel will learn that among Amsterdam’s ruthless businessmen, betrayal lurks everywhere, and even friends hide secret agendas.
About the Author
David Liss is the author of The Day of Atonement, The Twelfth Enchantment, The Devil’s Company, The Whiskey Rebels, The Ethical Assassin, A Spectacle of Corruption, The Coffee Trader, andA Conspiracy of Paper, winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He lives in San Antonio with his wife and children.
Hometown:San Antonio, Texas
Date of Birth:March 16, 1966
Place of Birth:Englewood, New Jersey
Education:B.S., M.A., M.Phil.
Read an Excerpt
It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting. Miguel
Lienzo picked it up and pulled it so close he almost dipped his nose into the tarry liquid. Holding the vessel still for an instant, he breathed in, pulling the scent deep into his lungs. The sharp odor of earth and rank leaves surprised him; it was like something an apothecary might keep in a chipped porcelain jar.
“What is this?” Miguel asked, working through his irritation by pushing at the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other. She knew he had no time to waste, so why had she brought him here for this nonsense? One bitter remark after another bubbled up inside him, but Miguel let loose with none of them. It wasn’t that he was afraid of her, but he often found himself going to great lengths to avoid her displeasure.
He looked over and saw that Geertruid met his silent cuticle mutilation with a grin. He knew that irresistible smile and what it meant: she was mightily pleased with herself, and when she looked that way it was hard for Miguel not to be mightily pleased with her too.
“It’s something extraordinary,” she told him, gesturing toward his bowl.
“Drink it?” Miguel squinted into the blackness. “It looks like the devil’s piss, which would certainly be extraordinary, but I’ve no desire to know what it tastes like.”
Geertruid leaned toward him, almost brushing up against his arm. “Take a sip and then I’ll tell you everything. This devil’s piss is going to make both our fortunes.”
It had begun not an hour earlier, when Miguel felt someone take hold of his arm.
In the instant before he turned his head, he ticked off the unpleasant possibilities: rival or creditor, an abandoned lover or her angry relative, the Danish fellow to whom he’d sold those Baltic grain futures with too enthusiastic a recommendation. Not so long ago the approach of a stranger had held promise. Merchants and schemers and women had all sought Miguel’s company, asking his advice, craving his companionship,
bargaining for his guilders. Now he wished only to learn in what new shape disaster would unfold itself.
He never thought to stop walking. He was part of the procession that formed each day when the bells of the Nieuwe Kerk struck two, signaling the end of trading on the Exchange. Hundreds of brokers poured out onto the Dam, the great plaza at Amsterdam’s center. They spread out along the alleys and roads and canal sides. Along the Warmoesstraat, the fastest route to the most popular taverns, shopkeepers stepped outside,
donning wide-brimmed leather hats to guard against damp that rolled in from the Zuiderzee. They set out sacks of spices, rolls of linen,
barrels of tobacco. Tailors and shoemakers and milliners waved men inside; sellers of books and pens and exotic trinkets cried out their wares.
The Warmoesstraat became a current of black hats and black suits,
speckled only with the white of collars, sleeves, and stockings or the flash of silver shoe buckles. Traders pushed past goods from the Orient or the New World, from places of which no one had heard a hundred years before. Excited like schoolboys set free of the classroom, the traders talked of their business in a dozen different languages. They laughed and shouted and pointed; they grabbed at anything young and female that crossed their path. They took out their purses and devoured the shopkeepers’ goods, leaving only coins in their wake.
Miguel Lienzo neither laughed nor admired the commodities set out before him nor clutched at the soft parts of willing shop girls. He walked silently, head down against the light rain. Today was, on the Christian calendar, the thirteenth day of May, 1659. Accounts on the Exchange closed each month on the twentieth; let a man make what maneuvers he liked, none of it mattered until the twentieth, when the credits and debits of the month were tallied and money at last changed hands. Today things had gone badly with a matter of brandy futures, and Miguel now had less than a week to pluck his fat from the fire or he would find himself another thousand guilders in debt.
Another thousand. He already owed three thousand. Once he had made double that in a year, but six months ago the sugar market collapsed,
taking Miguel’s fortune with it. And then–well, one mistake after another. He wanted to be like the Dutch, who regarded bankruptcy as no shame. He tried to tell himself it did not matter, it was only a little while longer until he undid the damage, but believing that tale required an increasing effort. How long, he wondered, until his wide and boyish face turned pinched? How long until his eyes lost the eager sparkle of a merchant and took on the desperate, hollow gaze of a gambler? He vowed it would not happen to him. He would not become one of those lost souls,
the ghosts who haunted the Exchange, living from one reckoning day to the next, toiling to secure just enough profit to keep their accounts afloat for one more month when surely all would be made easy.
Now, with unknown fingers wrapped around his arm, Miguel turned and saw a neatly dressed Dutchman of the middling ranks, hardly more than twenty years of age. He was a muscular wide-shouldered fellow with blond hair and a face almost more pretty than handsome, though his drooping mustache added a masculine flair.
Hendrick. No family name that anyone had ever heard. Geertruid Damhuis’s fellow.
“Greetings, Jew Man,” he said, still holding on to Miguel’s arm. “I hope all goes well for you this afternoon.”
“Things always go well with me,” he answered, as he twisted his neck to see if any prattling troublemaker might lurk behind him. The Ma’amad,
the ruling council among the Portuguese Jews, forbade congress between
Jews and “inappropriate” gentiles, and while this designation could prove treacherously ambiguous, no one could mistake Hendrick, in his yellow jerkin and red breeches, for anything appropriate.
“Madam Damhuis sent me to fetch you,” he said.
Geertruid had played at this before. She knew Miguel could not risk being seen on so public a street as the Warmoesstraat with a Dutchwoman,
particularly a Dutchwoman with whom he did business, so she sent her man instead. There was no less risk to Miguel’s reputation, but this way she could force his hand without even showing her face.
“Tell her I haven’t the time for so lovely a diversion,” he said. “Not just now.”
“Of course you do.” Hendrick grinned widely. “What man can say no to
Not Miguel. At least not easily. He had difficulty saying no to
Geertruid or to anyone else–including himself–who proposed something amusing. Miguel had no stomach for doom; disaster felt to him like an awkward and loose suit. He had to force himself each day to play the cautious role of a man in the throes of ruin. That, he knew, was his true curse, the curse of all former Conversos: in Portugal he had grown too used to falseness, pretending to worship as a Catholic, pretending to despise Jews and respect the Inquisition. He had thought nothing of being one thing while making the world believe he was another.
Deception, even self-deception, came far too easily.
“Thank your mistress but give her my regrets.” With reckoning day soon upon him, and new debts to burden him, he would have to curb his diversions, at least for a while. And there had been another note this morning, a strange anonymous scrawl on a torn piece of paper. I want my money. It was one of a half dozen or so Miguel had received in the last month. I want my money. Wait your turn, Miguel would think glumly, as he opened each of these letters, but he was unnerved by the terse tone and uneven hand. Only a madman would send such a message without a name–for how could Miguel respond even if he had the money and even if he were inclined to use what little he had for something so foolish as paying debts?
Hendrick stared, as though he couldn’t understand Miguel’s good, if thickly accented, Dutch.
“Today is not the day,” Miguel said, a bit more forcefully. He avoided speaking too adamantly to Hendrick, whom he had once seen slam a butcher’s head into the stones of the Damplatz for selling Geertruid rancid bacon.
Hendrick gazed at Miguel with the special pity men of the middle rank reserved for their superiors. “Madam Damhuis told me to inform you that today is the day. She tells me that she will show you something, and when you set your eyes on it, you will forever after divide your life into the time before this afternoon and the time after.”
The thought of her disrobing flashed before him. That would be a lovely divide between the past and the future and would certainly be worth setting aside his business for the afternoon. However, Geertruid loved to play at these games. There was little chance she meant to take off as much as her cap. But there was no getting rid of Hendrick, and urgent as his troubles might be, Miguel could make no deals with this Dutchman lurking in his shadow. It had happened before. He would trail Miguel from tavern to tavern, from alley to canal side, until Miguel surrendered. Best to have this over with, he decided, so he sighed and said he would go.
With a sharp gesture of his neck, Hendrick led them off the ancient cobbled street and across the steep bridges toward the new part of the city, ringed by the three great canals–the Herengracht, the
Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht–and then toward the Jordaan, the most rapidly growing part of town, where the air echoed with the ring of hammer on anvil and the chipping of chisel on stone.
Hendrick led him along the waters of the Rozengracht, where barges pierced the thick canal mist as they headed toward the docks to unload their goods. The new houses of the newly wealthy stood on either side of the murky water, facing the oak- and linden-lined waterway. Miguel had once rented the better part of so fine a house, red-brick and steeple-gabled. But then Brazilian production of sugar had far exceeded
Miguel’s expectations. He’d been gambling on low production for years,
but suddenly Brazilian farmers unleashed an unexpected crop, and in an instant prices collapsed. A great man of the Exchange as instantly became a debtor living off his brother’s scraps.
Once they departed from the main street, the Jordaan lost its charm. The neighborhood was new–where they stood had been farmland only thirty years before–but already the alleyways had taken on the decrepit cast of a slum. Dirt replaced the cobblestones. Huts made of thatch and scraps of wood leaned against squat houses black with tar. The alleys vibrated with the hollow clacking of looms, as weavers spun from sunup until late into the night, all in the hope of earning enough to keep their bellies full for one more day.
In moments of weakness, Miguel feared that poverty would claim him as it had claimed the wretched of the Jordaan, that he would fall into a well of debt so deep he would lose even the dream of recovering himself.
Would he be the same man then–himself, yet penniless–or would he become as hollow as the beggars and luckless laborers he passed on the streets?
He assured himself it would not happen. A true merchant never gives in to gloom. A man who has lived as a Secret Jew always has one more trick to save his skin. At least until he fell into the clutches of the
Inquisition, he reminded himself, and there was no Inquisition in
Amsterdam. Just the Ma’amad.
But what was he doing here with this inscrutable Dutchman? Why had he allowed his will to collapse when he had business, important business,
“To what sort of place are you taking me?” Miguel asked, hoping to find a reason to excuse himself.
“A miserable sort of place,” Hendrick said.
Miguel opened his mouth to voice an objection, but it was too late. They had arrived.
Though he was not, like the Dutch, inclined to believe in omens, Miguel would later recall that his venture had begun in a place called the
Golden Calf, surely an unpromising name. They climbed down a steep and viciously low-ceilinged stairwell to the cellar, a little room that might comfortably have held thirty souls but now contained perhaps fifty. The choking smoke of cheap West Indian tobacco and musty peat stoves nearly suppressed the scent of spilled beer and wine, old cheese,
and the odor of fifty unwashed men–or, rather, forty men and ten whores–whose mouths puffed out onions and beer.
At the bottom of the stairs, an enormous man, shaped remarkably liked a pear, blocked their passage, and sensing that someone wished to get by he moved his bulk backwards to prevent anyone from squeezing past. He held a tankard in one hand and a pipe in the other, and he shouted something incomprehensible to his companions.
“Move your monstrous bulk, fellow,” Hendrick said to him.
The man turned his head just enough to register his scowl and then looked away.
“Fellow”–Hendrick tried again–“you are the hard turd in the ass of my journey. Don’t make me apply a purgative to flush you out.”
“Go piss in your breeches,” he answered, and then belched laughter in his friends’ faces.
“Fellow,” said Hendrick, “turn around and see to whom you speak so rudely.”
The man did turn around, and as he saw Hendrick the grin melted from his jowly three-days-unshaved face. “Begging your pardon,” he said. He pulled his cap down off his head and moved quickly out of the way,
knocking clumsily into his friends.
This newfound humility wasn’t enough to satisfy Hendrick, who reached out like the lash of a whip and grabbed the man’s filthy shirt. The tankard and pipe fell to the floor. “Tell me,” Hendrick said, “should I
crush your throat or not crush your throat?”
“Not crush,” the drunk suggested eagerly. His hands flapped like bird wings.
“What do you say, Jew Man?” Hendrick asked Miguel. “Crush or not crush?”
“Oh, let him go,” Miguel answered wearily.
Hendrick released his grip. “The Jew Man says to let you go. You remember that, fellow, next time you think to toss a dead fish or rotten cabbage at a Jew. A Jew has saved your hide today, and for no good reason, too.” He turned to Miguel. “This way.”
Reading Group Guide
1) The Coffee Trader is a novel in which moral, ethical, and emotional choices are often bound up with monetary and financial choices. How do financial dealings shape or define character? Does this novel suggest a relationship between financial dealings and morality?
2) Miguel, the novel’s central character, often makes some questionable choices even though he regards himself as essentially honest and upstanding. Do you think he is a good person or a bad person? Why do you think so? What about Geertruid?
3) Given the degree to which The Coffee Trader depicts merchants tricking and deceiving one another, do you think trade on the
Amsterdam Exchange inherently deceptive, or is it simply trade in which some people choose to behave deceptively? How do the activities on the Exchange influence the lives of traders when they are off the Exchange? Can merchants effectively rope off financial deception as one aspect of their lives and behave ethically elsewhere?
4) How does the setting of this novel—Amsterdam and its various communities and locales—affect the novel? How does the setting influence the events, the characters? Is the setting familiar or alien to you? In what ways are the lives of people in seventeenthcentury
Amsterdam familiar to you, and in what ways are they unlike people today? What surprised you most about the way people lived?
5) There are a number of people in The Coffee Trader who are out to harm Miguel, or at the very least trick and manipulate him toward their own ends. Given that virtually no one is truly trustworthy,
do you think that this novel has a central villain? Who? How should villainy be defined?
6) Is Hannah a modern character in a pre-modern situation, or do you think her view of herself, the world, and her options are rooted in a particularly seventeenth-century perspective? What exactly are her goals? How would a contemporary woman in her situation respond?
7) Discuss the role of the Ma’amad in Amsterdam’s Jewish community.
What is the relationship between the Ma’amad and the
Inquisition in Portugal?
8) In his interview, the author mentions that this book was originally going to center on chocolate instead of coffee. How do you think it would have been different if chocolate had remained at the center?
9) Discuss Miguel’s commitment to religious observance. What motivates his devotion? Do you think of him as being particularly religious? Does his attachment to worship and the Jewish community affect how you feel about him?
10) Reviewers have called this novel a thriller, though it lacks many of the traditional characteristics of one—no one gets killed,
people are rarely placed in physical danger. Is this novel a thriller?
How does it work to keep the reader anxious about the fates of the characters?
11) Discuss the novel’s ending. Why do you believe the author made the choices he did in the various resolutions of the plot threads? Do these characters get what they deserve? Why or why not?
12) How is the kind of financial deception in The Coffee Trader like or unlike what we see in our own times? Is what happens on the
Amsterdam Exchange similar to scandals like Enron or World-
Com? Is the difference just a matter of scale?
A conversation with David Liss, author of The Coffee Trader
Q: You’ve been credited with creating a new genre–the historical financial thriller. Tell us about the plot of THE COFFEE TRADER, and what, precisely characterizes a historical financial thriller.
A: The novel centers around Miguel Lienzo, who is a first generation refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition. He's come to Amsterdam to escape persecution, and he becomes entangled in some of the new and exceedingly crooked methods of investment being practiced on the Amsterdam Exchange. When the novel opens, he's been financially ruined, and he's trying to restore his fortunes with a very dangerous scheme to corner the market on coffee just as coffee is first emerging in Europe.
I wanted this novel to function as a very exciting thriller, but I didn't want to rely on big terrors like death, destruction, conquest and so forth. Instead, I wanted it to revolve around the little terrors that most of us have actually experienced: the fear of being caught in a lie, the fear of financial ruin, etc. I set these concerns within the specific historical context of 17th century Amsterdam in part to take advantage of the strange financial rules of the day, which made it possible to write an exciting novel, and in part to show the similarities with today's corrupt markets.
Q: How would you relate the manipulation of coffee futures in Amsterdam, 1659 with today’s financial scandals like Enron and Imclone?
A: I find the similarities between 17th century financial manipulation and today's financial manipulation astonishing. In the 17th century, small groups of schemerscould take control of a market of a commodity by plotting among themselves, and it is easy to look back and say that they could get away with it since there were relatively few participants in the market, and there was nothing like mass communication. With financial schemes today, there are usually hundreds of people in the loop, these machinations are visible to market watchers, and we have instantaneous communication. I think what this really demonstrates is that the desire to cheat and the willingness to be cheated are fairly constant features of any thriving market.
Q: You have a knack for writing about pivotal moments in business history that resonate with business news today. What interests you about the history of finance?
A: Finance is interesting because of the central role that money plays in modern culture. It shapes and defines our lives and our society. As a historical novelist, I want to write books that capture times that are many ways alien to us now, and those moments that witness major changes in the nature of finance seem to me great flashpoints of change. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people were just beginning to understand themselves through the lens of money. Money was in the process of changing from a metaphor for immutable wealth (principally land) to a goal in itself, and that meant that an entirely new class of people had access to wealth. But rather than simply write about how people relate to, desire and manipulate wealth, I'm interested in how new modes of making money change the way people look at the world, their relationships and themselves.
Q: We take coffee for granted today. However in Amsterdam, 1659, the place and time your book is set, it is an exotic beverage. Would Miguel Lienzo, your protagonist ever envisioned Starbucks on every corner? Can you talk about how coffee rose from obscurity to ubiquity?
A: One of the things that I've come to realize in working on this book is that all human cultures have social beverages, and coffee, as a stimulating drink, is a perfect match for social gatherings. Miguel recognizes that coffee and commerce go naturally together, but I'm not sure that even he would have foreseen the central role coffee played and plays in modern life.
Coffee comes originally from Ethiopia, and it spread to the Middle East in large part because Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol, so coffee was a natural social drink for them. Coffee houses in the late medieval and early modern Islamic world were hotbeds of political discussion and dissent, and so were always controversial. When it first arrived in Europe, coffee was understood as a medicine, and was often prescribed by pharmacists for ailments like jaundice or gout, but by the middle of the century, a few cities in Europe had coffee "taverns" where businessmen and intellectuals would congregate. By the end of the 17th century, there would be coffee houses across Europe, and they would be central gathering points for men of commerce, letters, and politics.
Q: You wrote A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER as a murder mystery, but THE COFFEE TRADER has a very different structure. Can you talk about your relationship with the mystery genre? Are you moving away from mysteries?
A: I enjoy reading and writing mysteries, but I enjoy reading and writing other sorts of things as well. When I started The Coffee Trader, I knew only that I wanted to set the book in 17th century Amsterdam -- and very little else. Since I'd made the argument in my first book that detective work, as we know it today, could only have evolved in the 18th century, I had boxed myself out of the option of writing a mystery unless I wanted to get into a long and protracted debate with myself. What I liked about writing this novel was that it functions like a mystery without there being a murder at the center. As I developed it, it occurred to me that many of my favorite novels have this same structure: Pride and Prejudice, Tom Jones, The Sister Carrie. You read to find out what emotional truth or material facts have been kept from the readers or the characters. Plot itself is almost always a mystery, with the resolution as the "what done it." Genre mysteries do what most novels do, only they do it more overtly.
Q: Why did you choose to write about this particular time and place in history — and why did you choose to write about coffee?
A: When I was working on my doctorate in 18th century British literature, I became very interested in the Netherlands in the 17th century because the 18th century British were interested in that time and place. The Dutch had been the economic and political miracle of their time, and the British wanted to emulate that culture in many ways. When it came time to start thinking about a second novel, I knew I finally had the freedom to research any area that interested me, so I decided to peruse this project. The interest in coffee came later. I first decided that I wanted to write about a merchant attempting to establish a monopoly on a newly emerging commodity. I found out that there were two first coming into their own in this period: coffee and chocolate. Chocolate had about a thirty year head start on coffee, so there was more written about it, and I became seduced by the availability of primary materials. But when I had a fairly solid draft finished, I realized the book was edgy and tense and nervous -- and I then realized it had been about coffee all along.
Q: The historical novel seems to be more popular than ever before. Do you have any thoughts about why the public is turning to history?
A: People have been reading a writing historical fiction for a very long time now. If it is more popular than ever, it is probably because of an enhanced understanding that we now have of the ways in which culture circulates in various periods of history. A lot of the theoretical/historical thinking of the past decade or so has enabled us to at least make the effort to separate ourselves from our own moment and imagine an alien one. In the past, historical fiction often did little more than plugged essentially modern people into historical settings. Today there are more and more sophisticated novelists who are striving to get a nuanced sense of how people of the past might have actually thought and felt and lived. I think readers enjoy these books because they give them a kind of insight that traditional history often cannot. Historians can try to tell us what happened, but novelists can try to tell us about the experience of what happened.
Q: THE COFFEE TRADER seems to suggest that there is an inherent relationship between financial canniness and duplicity. Do you think that is true? Was it more true in the past or today?
A: There certainly was such a relationship on the Amsterdam exchange in the 17th century. Merchants would have to lie constantly, and they would have to try to separate the lies they heard from the truth. Trading on the exchange often became a matter of guessing who was telling the truth and who was lying in order to manipulate the value of a commodity. In today's financial world, there's still plenty of deception, but it is generally less overt. Less lying, more "spinning."
Q: A significant number of historical novels are populated by characters who are familiar to contemporary readers. Your book, however, contains only passing references to famous Amsterdamers of the Golden Age (e.g. Spinoza, Rembrandt, etc). Have you made a conscious decision to avoid canonical figures?
A: A lot of reader, and I'm certainly one of them, enjoy seeing historical figures show up in novels, but I've chosen to avoid that sort of thing because I'm more interested in trying to recreate the lives or ordinary men and women than I am in providing an all-encompassing history lesson of a time and place. In some ways, I find it frustrating when I read novels in which the protagonist just happens to know everyone who would be selected by history as important, or someone who just happens upon famous people in a picaresque journey. Besides, when writing about people who actually lived, a novelist is burdened by the historical record. If I get a great idea for doing something with the story, I want to be able to do that rather than say, "Oh, it was a great idea, but I can't have Spinoza kill Rembrandt because that’s not the way history really played out." If I want my philosopher to kill my painter, then that's what I'm going to have happen.
From the Hardcover edition.