Tuesday 19 July 2011

'just a man dying'

The Coffee Story
by Peter Salmon

The coffee here, thank you for asking, is the worst fucking coffee I have ever tasted, and that's saying something, considering the shit my second wife used to make. I was a man who in his prime could have had any coffee bean and any woman in the world, but who went and fell for that pallid slip of whatsit with her flat shoes and floral prints, her grey eyes and moral certitude. Christ alone knows how she used to get rid of all the flavour.
Meet Teddy Everett, scion of the once dominant Everett family coffee dynasty, a man with a lifetime to impart as he lays dying of cancer. Actually not an entire lifetime but a very specific period of his life lived in Ethiopia at the same time as Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor, Fascist Italy renewed its Imperial interests, and the young Teddy moved with his family as Everett and Sons expanded its global operations. This is a novel all about narrative voice. The first sentence of that extract above was pasted to the side of a promotional jar of terrible instant coffee that I was sent because the publishers know that it is that voice that gives the novel its caffeine kick. What that means of course is that if you don't go for the voice then you may not have much joy; but hey, there are some people out there who just don't like coffee.

Teddy may be recalling a relatively small portion of his life but it is certainly a definitive period, one that has burdened him for the rest of his life, one packed with incident and character, one that I shall allow him to summarise in his own unique way.

...it's not true that your life flashes before your eyes: it breaks off in chunks, a wife here, a wife there, Africa bloody Africa, the sound of bullets hitting flesh, the Italians, the Americans, the Cubans, the first lump beneath the testicle, the broken coffee table, the dead child, the cars driving off with your happiness in the back, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, Lucy Alfarez, the bloodstained shoes wiped by a handkerchief, the handcuffs, the dossiers. The terrible burden of hidden guilt, the terrible burden of guilt revealed, but always, thank Christ, the smell of coffee...

And that tells you something of the novel's structure. This is a deathbed confessional and as such it is haphazard, random and repetitive. Teddy's memories come flying at you in those chunks he mentions with certain moments and certain people coming round again and again. Teddy may have been married twice but it is Lucy for whom the book is written and the image of her appearing from the jungle with a Zippo lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other for example is a recurring motif. And there is one moment in particular held back until the end, the grand reveal, the moment that changed Teddy's life for ever.

I was reminded of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman (from the same publisher) which may have a totally different narrative standpoint but is similarly unafraid of coming on strong with unsympathetic characters. The Coffee Story is populated by grotesques: a phlegm-hocking Cuban revolutionary, blind seer, brutish bodyguard, to name but a few. One figure prominent amongst them is Kebreth, the 'notebook revolutionary', his father's contact with the local Galla people but with a keen interest in the 'establishment of a proletarian government in Ethiopia that would have led to a Pan-African revolution' (the first act of which would be his successful leading of the employees of 'Everett and Sons Coffee into insurrection by assassinating my father and placing the entire operation in native hands'). Part of the appeal of the book is the casual style in which these characters are dropped into the story. Teddy isn't at all surprised that such a person should exist so why should we? This, combined with the irreverence with which he dispatches his plot points ('Did I mention I have only have one testicle?') gives the book some real zip.

I guess it's the kind of book that might be described as 'an entertainment.' The flip side of irreverence and humour (even dark humour) is that it's difficult to take the book too seriously, but I'm sure we're not meant to. Teddy's tutor, Birtwhistle, for example witnesses the same events as his pupil and tries 'to make a story of it, but he will get too tied up in the politics of the thing, in the problems of representation, of race and history, and he will never get the thing done.' Perhaps Salmon had the same experience and decided instead to entertain instead. He certainly succeeds.


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