A chance to redo the past in ‘Before the Coffee Gets Cold’

Time travel and café culture yield a lovely, wise brew in a translation of Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s popular play-turned-novel.

Hanover Square Press
“Before the Coffee Gets Cold” by Toshikazu Kawaguchi and translated by Geoffrey Trousselot, Hanover Square Press, 272 pp.

Originally debuting onstage in Japan, “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” won praise and awards for its playwright, Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Its popularity inspired Kawaguchi to adapt the play into his first novel in 2015, producing a quirky, sigh-inducingly satisfying read that became an international bestseller. A film adaptation followed in 2018. This month, the English edition translated by Australian Geoffrey Trousselot finally arrives stateside, ready to charm American audiences. 

Welcome to Funiculi Funicula, a small café in a narrow back alley in Tokyo, established in 1874. Beyond a few minor renovations, little has changed beyond the requisite addition of electricity. A married couple, Kei and Nagare, are the current owners, while Nagare’s cousin, Kazu, a university student, helps out when she’s not in school. 

Regular customers casually wander in and out with familiar ease, with the exception of a woman in a white dress who is always seated in the same seat at the same table, most often absorbed in reading her book, “The Lovers.” She is, in fact, a ghost who neglected to follow the café’s most important rule – to finish drinking before the coffee gets cold. 

Funiculi Funicula is no ordinary café. That certain chair at that certain table is actually a time portal. Only when its usual occupant vacates the seat to visit the restroom (yes, even ghosts need relief) can a (living) customer attempt a temporary visit. The rules are many, but the most important is tied to the coffee: Travel commences when Kazu pours a fresh cup of java; to avoid becoming a permanent specter, the traveler must conclude the short visit and drain the cup before the liquid becomes cold. While time can be defied, the present will not, cannot be, changed. 

In four intertwined chapters, Kawaguchi invites readers to accompany four intrepid adventurers who desire a second chance at a crucial conversation in their lives. No-nonsense businesswoman Fumiko is desperate to be more open and vulnerable during her last meeting with her boyfriend Goro before he makes a job transfer to the U.S. Nurse Kohtake wants one more opportunity to talk to her husband Fusagi before Alzheimer’s made him forget too much – including her. Bar owner Hirai needs to talk to her younger sister Kumi, whom she’s been avoiding for too many years. And then co-owner Kei, who is pregnant, wants a glimpse into the future to meet her unborn child. 

As a first-time novelist, Kawaguchi’s writing isn’t quite comparable (yet?) to some of his globally revered compatriots – think Haruki Murakami, Yoko Tawada, Banana Yoshimoto, and Kenzaburō Ōe. His narrative is occasionally uneven and tends to meander – readers might like to know why Kazu is the only one able to pour the brew, for example, while the description of Hirai’s family’s historic business could have skipped a few irrelevant details. The new author is also sometimes repetitive, and his sentences aren’t always exactly elegant. 

And yet, where Kawaguchi excels is undoubtedly more essential: He has a surprising, unerring ability to find lasting emotional resonance. Interwoven into what initially feels like a whimsical escape are existential conundrums of love and loss, family and freedom, life and death. “[N]o matter what difficulties people face,” Kazu muses at book’s end, “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.”

That purpose is indeed clear, and audiences worldwide seem ready for more. A sequel, “Before Your Memory Fades,” hit shelves in 2018 in Japan. Also translated by Trousselot and titled “Tales from the Café” for English readers, the book is already available in other predominantly English-speaking countries including Britain and Australia. The U.S. edition is hopefully soon to follow, complete with Kazu’s warning admonition: “Drink the coffee before it gets cold.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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