Unai Elorriaga’s Plants Don’t Drink Coffee

by Jess

Elorriaga’s slim little book Plants Don’t Drink Coffee is very cute.  Almost too cute, if you know what I mean.  I loved reading along with our precocious narrator, Tomas, and the shenanigans of his goofy Uncle Simon trying to paint a rugby field on a golf course under cover of night.

Tomas has an adorable way of documenting and cataloging his world for us.  The book begins: “Plants don’t drink coffee.  They don’t like coffee, and neither do flowers or trees.  Birds don’t like it either.”  In another place he tells us, “It is summer now, and in summer we go out at nighttime too.  We go out for a walk come nighttime. … And we go for a walk all the way to the school or the soccer fields, and all the streetlights are lit and there’s no one around, and it smells like grass in some places, and in others it smells like soup.”  And yet later: “It’s very hot in Africa.  Dad told me.  And you can see it in movies.  In movies in Russia you see cold and in movies in Africa you see heat.  But sometimes it rains in Africa and the lions get wet, and the turtles as well, but turtles don’t care, because they are just as happy in the water or in the desert or on a roof.  Turtles sometimes are in the kitchen in some houses.  But only in a few.  Mostly they are in Africa.  And places like that.”

Cute, right?  But it gets really, really old.  A few other family members get POV chapters, which breaks up the monotony of Tomas’ narration, but even those sections are written quite simply and filled with repetition.  I’m aware that Elorriaga wrote this way on purpose, but it absolutely couldn’t have been a bit longer.  It’s 200 pages, but it’s small — smaller than the palm of my hand with my fingers outspread.

The last few chapters are labeled with the different characters’ names and the words “Last couplet,” as though each person’s story had been a poem.  This was one of the most intriguing aspects of the book for me, which is a shame because it was clearly not the story itself.  Tomas’ father Erroman has been in the hospital throughout the novel, and his illness comes to the forefront of the story toward the end, but even then the pathos did not build sufficiently to bring the story all the way home.  As Tim O’Brien says in his article “Telling Tales” in The Atlantic, “Another element of a well-imagined story, in my view, is a sense of gravitas or thematic weight.  Inventing a nifty, extraordinary set of behaviors for our characters is not enough.  A fiction writer is also challenged to find import in those behaviors.  Cleverness, in the end, is a sorry (though common) substitute for thematic weight.”