It might be the Murakami effect, but when it comes to the Japanese literature that makes it into English, you’re rarely short of something a little, shall we say, quirky. Examples of this include Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder and, well, just about anything by Banana Yoshimoto. Today’s review features another intriguing and slightly odd book to add to that list, with a story taking us off to Tokyo, and a coffee shop that offers a lot more than a quiet place to sip your mocha. Be careful, though. You wouldn’t want to linger too long over your drink here – there are some serious consequences for staying in your seat for too long…
Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold (translated by Geoffrey Trousselot, review copy courtesy of Picador) is set in a basement café called ‘Funiculi Funicula’ located down a dark Tokyo alleyway. It’s a quiet place, small and rather old-fashioned, and the owners, Nagare and Kei, along with the young waitress Kazu, generally spend relaxing days attending to the needs of the few customers who drop by. Yet there’s something very special about the café – you see, if you want to, you can travel in time…
As bizarre as it may sound, there’s a special seat in the café, and once a day, when the right moment arrives, anyone wishing to take a trip can sit down, name a time, have a coffee poured and time travel. However, anyone hoping to prevent disasters will soon be disappointed. Changing the present simply isn’t possible, and there are several other rules that must be followed:
“There’s only one seat that allows you to go back in time, OK? And, while in the past, you can’t move from that seat,” Hirai said. “What else was there?” she asked Kazu, as she moved her count to her fifth finger.
“There’s a time limit,” Kazu said, keeping her eyes on the glass she was wiping. She mentioned it like an afterthought, as if she were merely talking to herself.
p.15 (Picador, 2019)
This is no mere afterthought, though. As we’ll find out, there’s a harsh price to pay for not drinking your coffee up before it gets cold…
Before the Coffee Gets Cold began life as a play before being turned into a novel, and there’s also been a recent film adaptation (with the English title of Café Funiculi Funicula). The book has apparently been a huge success in Japan, and you can see why as the concept is fascinating. Most people have regrets and can remember times in their past when they wish they’d said something different, or said anything at all, and Kawaguchi has created a little world where it’s possible to change this, and where the chance to replay scenes is more than just wishful thinking.
The book is divided into four sections, with each having a different focus. However, in addition to being linked by the setting and the café’s regulars, each part has in common the idea of a person wanting to relive a moment, even if they know they can’t change the present. The first revolves around a woman wanting to speak to her ex-boyfriend one last time, while a nurse who often drops by decides to go back and talk to her husband, an Alzheimer’s sufferer whose memory is being eroded day by day. It’s not just the customers who want to use the seat, though. In the final part, one of the staff members decides that the time has come to sit down and try the coffee herself.
The book has all the makings of a great story, and the gloomy old café makes for a superb setting, what with its three clocks (only one of which works), an old ceiling fan and no air-conditioning. There’s a small, ensemble cast (including a ghost who occupies the special seat…) in a cosy place where everybody knows your name. In addition, the conversations between the time travellers and those they want to see are the key to the book, and the novel’s origins as a play are clear here, with everything else there to support these pivotal scenes. Despite the knowledge that their actions cannot change the present, the opportunity to express what they never got around to saying before may eventually make a small difference in their own lives, and that’s better than nothing.
However, given this set-up, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is actually slightly disappointing. While the main scenes are well done, most of the writing around them is fairly poor. One annoying aspect of the book is a tendency towards some major info dumping, such as when a character mentions the Japanese inn her parents own, and we are then given a geography lesson:
Sendai is a popular tourist destination, particularly famous for its gorgeous Tanabata Festival. The festival is best known for its sasakazari: a towering piece of bamboo about ten metres long, to which five giant paper balls with colourful paper streamers are attached. (p.125)
This paragraph goes on for a while, and you wonder whether Kawaguchi really thought it was a good idea, or whether Trousselot decided that this was information the reader needed (I really hope not…). The clumsy writing joining the scenes means this never feels like coming together as a novel, and the ending doesn’t help either, coming across as a little too obvious, abrupt and sickly-sweet.
Another area which seems like a missed opportunity is the handling of perhaps the most interesting character, Kazu. She’s nicely built up as a slightly odd young woman with her emotionless, flat delivery, and her sudden transformation when called upon to pour the coffee hints at a hidden secret. It’s a waste of a great character (the film, predictably, has decided that the best way to expand her role is to introduce a love interest absent from the book…), and while we don’t need to know all of her, and the café’s, secrets, a little would have gone a long way.
In truth, Before the Coffee Gets Cold doesn’t really belong in the same league as the works and writers mentioned earlier, but it’s still an interesting little novel, quick and easy to read, and I’m sure it’ll find an appreciative readership. It’s the fascinating central conceit that will attract most people, and many will be asking themselves the same question on finishing the book. If you could go back for a short conversation with a loved one, a do-over, would you? And if so, what would you say?
I’ll leave you all to have a think about that…