Read It Quick — Before The Coffee Gets Cold
A review of a delightful time travel tale set in a small cafe in Tokyo
Review of “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot)
Think of an answer to the question that forms the central premise of this book
If you could go back, who would you want to meet ?
Doesn’t it sound like a question that is likely to be asked as the deciding factor at a beauty pageant, or on a first date, or in a psychological questionnaire?
I am not a fan of such broad and open-ended questions which seldom have one right answer. This one is particularly subjective, requiring introspection and personal awareness. Why ask?
I began reading the ebook version on a Friday evening, bracing myself for a slow read, prepared to abandon it midway considering my lack of interest in sci-fi, particularly time travel, the major component of the story.
Little did I know that I would keep returning to the book after every little interruption, impatient to find out what happened next, completing it at the expense of all other errands that remained undone.
The book is divided into four sections:
- The Lovers
- Husband and wife
- The sisters
- Mother and child
A handful of ordinary characters
All the characters meet in a coffee shop named Funiculi Funicula, tucked away in a quiet side alley in Tokyo. The entire novel unfolds within this tiny space which has room for three tables, a counter, a back room, and the toilet (an important location detail).
The nondescript windowless cafe located in a basement is adorned with three wall-mounted clocks, each displaying a different time, a feature that emphasizes both, the importance of, and a disregard for, time.
The first section, perhaps the least interesting one, begins with the breakup of a young, attractive couple in the cafe. The incident, although quite unremarkable by itself, is the trigger for the interest in time travel for Fumiko, the highly-accomplished, attractive woman left behind by her boyfriend who chooses to chase his dream of going to America.
Having heard the urban legend of the special ability of this cafe to transport visitors to the past, curious Fumiko inquires with Kazu, the reticent, almost expressionless waitress. Fumiko wishes to revisit the past in the hopes of a different outcome, perhaps marriage to Goro, her boyfriend who had inexplicably picked his work over her.
Although smart enough to wonder why a cafe with such special powers doesn’t have people thronging to embark on time travel, Fumiko hopes to understand her current situation by going back in time.
The non-negotiable rules of travel
Clearly, everything is not as it seems. There are rules to time travel.
- you can only be transported from a particular seat,
- you can meet only people who have previously been in the cafe with you,
- you must return before the coffee gets cold and
- most importantly, you absolutely cannot change the present by this little excursion.
The story is set in Japan, a country that is heavy on protocol. Even time travel at the cafe is not exempt. There are elaborate descriptions of the regimented sequence of brewing of the coffee, and the ceremony of the silver kettle from which the strong, steaming brew is poured for each of the characters who travel back in time for reasons that they justify as being valid, knowing the limitations of the expedition.
We hear this chime at every change of scene, arrival of a person, or forward movement of the story.
With a handful of characters, Kawaguchi, a playwright, who first wrote this story as a theatre act , covers the vast canvas of the human condition as it afflicts the people who frequent the cafe.
Apart from the young couple in the first scene, there are two other couples — Nagare and his wife Kei who run the cafe, and an older couple dealing with the inevitable decline of the husband who suffers from Alzhiemers, who are regular customers.
Hirai, the exuberant woman who runs a hostess bar next door provides comic relief even as she harbors her own regrets, and turns to the past to get a handle on the unfairness of the present.
The two most interesting characters however are the mysterious woman in the white dress who sits at one end reading a book, oblivious to the comings and goings, and the young, calm, waitress Kazu who enables each time traveler’s journey by serving them piping hot coffee whose steam transports them to the day and time of their choosing.
A lot can happen over a cup of coffee
While it seems like not much happens in each case, there is so much that unfolds through the pages. Kawaguchi uses simple dialog to fill in the backstory of each of the characters given the limitations of the setting being restricted to the cafe. Even more impressive is his ability to convey the doubts and rationalization that each character makes as they contemplate time travel, a possibility that they were aware of but had never considered until the day they take the plunge.
Translations are such valuable additions to world literature. Writers are able to communicate the ordinary tenor of life as it unfolds, without pretense or fluff. This is a Japanese story told without unnecessary focus on matcha, sakura, or sake. It is a story of people everywhere, humans besieged by doubts, regrets for the past, and fear of the future.
You feel for aging Fusagi and young Kei, you weep with the remorseful Hirai, and root for Fumiko. You could be any or all of them. You could be the one choosing to sit in the special chair that transports you, knowing that the present will not change.
I still do not know how to respond to the initial question of — ‘ If you could go back, who would you want to meet ?’
All I know is that by going back in time, even if the present doesn’t change, I will.
My opinion: Like a tiny cup of espresso, this little book packs a strong, unforgettable punch. Prepare to be transported.
Originally published at https://www.ranjanirao.com on March 19, 2020.