Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2021

The Coffee Story, by Peter Salmon

To use one of Kim’s expressions at Reading Matters, this novel is absolutely bonkers.  The Coffee Story is a wild, rambunctious, anti-narrative of opportunism and greed, chosen by Toby Litt as his book of the year in the New Statesman.  But it has fared badly at Goodreads, where though some have recognised the incoherence as the fragmented thoughts of a narrator in extremis, others have dismissed it as a waste of time, misanthropic, or unsatisfying and a bit messy.  That might be because the author, Australian Peter Salmon, is an admirer of the postmodern philosopher Derrida, and has just published a much-lauded bio, An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (Verso, 2020).  I have never read Derrida, but I recognise a postmodern novel when I see it, and this one is very funny indeed.

Your life, they say, flashes before your eyes in your last moments, and Salmon has taken this ridiculous cliché (how could anyone know, eh?) and turned it into a novel.  Teddy Everett is dying of cancer, possibly in a prison hospital, and this is his deathbed confessional.  Or bragfest, take your pick.

The Goodreaders were right about one thing: Teddy is misanthropic, and misogynist too.  He is a horrible man, who comes from a genealogy of other horrible men.  He grows up in Ethiopia, heir to a rapacious coffee empire, and comes of age as communist insurgents begin to make their presence felt.  (There are references to Hailie Salassi, the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, the failure of the League of Nations to protect it and so on, but you can read the novel, as I did, in complete ignorance of Ethiopian history and politics and then look it up at Wikipedia afterwards if so minded.  Where, alas, you will find the usual dispiriting chronicle of African colonial and postcolonial events.)

Teddy, like his male ancestors, has bedded and wedded too many hapless women and feminists may justifiably groan in despair at the absence of women with any real agency.  But this misses the point: no one in this story has any real agency, least of all Teddy unable to do anything but endure the indignities and pain of terminal illness.  The reader is not disposed to feel sorry for him, but even so, when Teddy betrays his wives, his family and his country, he is no more than a bit player in a melodrama not of his making.  The characters in this novel are moving inexorably towards disaster, just as Ethiopia is.  

And yet the novel is very funny.  The playful narrator never lets the reader forget that this is a work of fiction, manipulating events with arbitrary authorial choices, such as when he declares that he’s not given to suspense so let’s alter the chronology and have the event happen then when it suits the narrative.  The mockery is laced with black humour:

My father watched the pickers below as he knocked back the tejHe had thought that his arrival in Africa—he always called it Africa not Ethiopia not Abyssinia, my mother did the same—would be like in the movies, the white massa carried in a sedan chair, hoisted on black shoulders, a further sedan chair swaying behind with his wife and son.  Obedience, obsequiousness, that sort of thing.  Hanging with the Duke of Gloucester at the Coronation, the presentation of zebras and the peeling of grapes.  Sitting on a porch being fanned by a native while the coffee-pickers turned plants into money and Ibrahim Salez turned that money into gold.  A spot of big-game hunting in the evening, safari suits and pith helmets, him and Holbrook posing with rifles for photographs, while awestruck Ethiopes held the heads of lions, gazelles buffalo oryx.  (p.162)

A white man’s colonial fantasy, blithely indifferent to the reality around him. 

The narrative brings the personal life of Teddy Everett down to size.  This is the moment when his child was conceived:

Listen, cells grew and split, split and grew, forged towards organhood.  Helixes gripped and tore.  In other news, the Russians, ferried southwards by the Trans-Siberian railway, seized two hundred villages in Silesia.  The Allies entered Mönchengladbach, levelled Dresden, and crossed the Rhine.  Urgent meetings were held.  Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta; Hitler, Goering and Himmler in Berlin; and, critically, myself, my pregnant ladyfriend and her drunk, gun-toting younger brother in my office at Everett’s.  Negotiations dragged through the night.  Stalin, his position strengthened by recent military victories, won tacit Anglo-US support for Soviet control of Eastern Europe.  Hitler, his position weakened by recent military defeats, won tacit support for the idea of marrying his girlfriend and then topping himself.  My first wife, her position strengthened by the embryo growing inside her, not to mention the presence of her gun-toting brother, won explicit support for the fact that the right thing would be done. 

And so, in a series of firm handshakes and the placing down of weapons, it was agreed.  Russia got Poland, the Third Reich was abandoned  988 years early, and my first wife and I, Gloria in Excelsis, were to be joined in the sight of God and her brother, in holy, most holy, matrimony. (p.171)

The Coffee Story is what they call a Vegemite (Marmite) book.  You’ll either really like it, or you really won’t.  

You can find out more about Peter Salmon at his website. 

Author: Peter Salmon
Title: The Coffee Story
Publisher: Sceptre, (Hachette) 2011
ISBN: 9781444724707, pbk., 281
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings at the Melbourne Writers Festival, $24.95

Availability: Out of print.  Try your second-hand dealer or your library.

There are not many other worthwhile reviews that I could find, though if you check the Amazon reviews page you can see that there were reviews at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Mail.  I just can’t find them online:


Responses

  1. Lol. Fancy associating me with the word bonkers! 😂 Funnily enough I once met Peter at a book launch in London… I have a vague feeling it was for Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing. Anyway, I recall him telling me about this book and not long later a copy arrived in the post, but I couldn’t get on with it and I abandoned it without reviewing.

    Like

    • *chuckle* I love the way you use the word, and it’s the perfect description of this book.
      Do you miss being in London and part of the literary scene there?

      Like

      • No, don’t miss it at all. I do miss catching up with bloggers at events and going to my book group and just generally having book-related to chats to people. Unfortunately I work with people who don’t read and are very proud to tell me so 🙄 One chap told me he’s never read a book in his life and wore it as a badge of honour! (I went to a couple of events at the Perth Festival’s Literature Weekend yesterday and it was bliss to be surrounded by book people 😊)

        Like

        • Yes, that’s the best part of being at a Litfest.
          Are you “going to” the Adelaide festival? There are some good bookish events…

          Like

          • Not sure… haven’t actually looked at the program.

            Like

  2. I suspect I would fall into the category of people who would lose patience with this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. a different sounding read Lisa

    Liked by 1 person

    • I just took a quick look at your blog, Stu, and Ethiopia is one of the few countries you haven’t visited in your reviews. Maybe it’s one that would interest you.

      Liked by 2 people


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: