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Book Review: Before the Coffee Gets Cold

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

Toshikazu Kawaguchi
Before the Coffee Gets Cold
Picador 2019
ISBN 9781529029581
Pages 213, Price $15.99

A Fascinating Yarn of Time and Truth

Time travel has always been a topic of much speculation and interest, ever since H.G.Wells wrote The Time Machine (1895). From Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife (2003) to recent films like Rian Johnson's Looper (2012), art has never stopped exploring and experimenting with the dimension of time. In this context, playwright Toshikazu Kawaguchi's poignant debut novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold, first published in Japanese in 2015, continues the long-time tryst with time but with a refreshing take.

The plot is set in a cafe named Funiculi Funicula (after a popular Neapolitan song that was composed in 1880 by Luigi Denza to the lyrics of Peppino Turco) in Tokyo, where there is a provision of travelling back in time. However, unlike Western fiction where the time traveller is the agent of change, here the magic is bound by rules and protocol. People who time travel can do so while being seated on one particular chair in the cafe, from which they cannot move during the time span. If they would like to meet someone back in time, that person needs to have visited the cafe at some point or another. They cannot change the present and they have to drink the coffee given to them and return before the beverage gets cold. If they don’t, they will turn into a ghost and be confined to the chair every single day.

The transportation has a mystic and surreal feel to it. When the coffee is poured from a silver kettle to a cup, there is a “shimmering steam” and the person and their surrounding seem to dissolve till the transition is complete. This adds to the oriental charm.

The compass of the book covers four chapters or stories that are seamlessly intertwined, titled ‘The Lovers’, ‘Husband and Wife’, ‘The Sisters’, and ‘Mother and Child’. The shift of focus from time to time, pushing certain characters to the centre stage, takes place effortlessly. Each of the stories is poignant and touching.

Symbolism forms an important undercurrent in the novel. For instance, the cafe is in a windowless basement, where it is impossible to tell whether it is night or day. There are three antique wall clocks showing different times, only one of which tells the actual time. Also, everything in the cafe appears to be hued in sepia due to the few shaded lamps. All of these impart the impression of the cafe being frozen in time. Moreover, the fact that one has to return to the present before the coffee gets cold is an indirect injunction against dwelling at another time for too long. As the present is our immediate reality, the author implies that it is imperative to live here and embrace it.
The narrative technique is noteworthy. While the events basically follow a linear fashion, there are flashbacks that each person experiences before they travel in time. Also, there are a few twists and surprises that unravel in the course, enhancing the experience. The intervals and interstices are marked by the sound of the doorbell when one enters the cafe or the graphic coffee cup, both of which are innovative.

Though the characters are few, they are different and engaging. Initially, it does take some time to remember who is who but after a few pages the reader gets the hang of it. The characters are insightfully portrayed, each with their own intricacies that unfold gradually.

Since the setting of the cafe remains constant, there are certain limitations to the plot. However, Kawaguchi commendably overcomes these to add variety and dynamism, so that we do not feel bored at any moment. The cafe has its own pulse and links all the characters together in a strong bond.

While it is true that the present cannot be changed by time travel, the visit changes the person who is then in a position to usher a better future. As Kazu mulls at the end of the book, “No matter what difficulties people face they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.” (Page 213)

On the flip side, the diction of the book is not that great. There are repetitions at times and the sentences do not stand out in terms of elegance. But this is a translation and perhaps it reads better in Japanese. Also, it is not packed with dramatic action as such, which may disinterest certain readers.

Yet Kawaguchi excels in creating a soulful experience and exploring the existential dilemmas of love and loss, duty and freedom as well as life itself. It tugs at the heart and has a dreamlike quality, leaving us feeling dazed and wistful. The soft yet potent charm is one to be relished.

You can get your copy of the book here here.


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