Book review: Before the coffee gets cold

Having recently finished David Mitchell’s weighty tale about rising musicians looking for their own creative avenue towards Utopia, I was looking for something a little lighter; and Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before The Coffee Gets Cold, published in 2015 and now available in an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot, was the intriguing wild card in an established chain’s long-established buy-one-get-one-half-price offer.

Having researched industrial relations in Japanese companies in the UK, and even learned a few words of Japanese, and spent a week in Japan as part of a union delegation, this was a choice that ticked an evident number of boxes; on top of which was the book’s prime offer, in marketing terms: ‘If you could go back, who would you want to meet?’ For the Funiculi Funicula cafe (the name reflects a Neapolitan song which has a role in Japanese anime) is no ordinary coffee house: according to an urban legend, it is able to transport people across time – provided they observe a number of protocols and rules (this is Japan). One of these is that they have to return before their coffee goes cold; and another is that the present cannot be changed. As Kawaguchi comments, this means that his characters have to face their reality and that the story is more than just a dream.

Four people – all women – take up the challenge in this short book (of a shade over 200 pages) and its four chapters tell the story of each, although many of the same characters appear in all of the four stories. Or rather, four acts, this being originally a play (and then a film), with the characters on stage for long periods before each evolving to take their turn in the spotlight. As such, much of the tale’s work takes place in dialogue while the descriptive detail tends towards establishing stage directions while setting very careful and highly elaborate scenery and a charged atmosphere appropriate to the cafe’s own history (dating back 140 years to the end of the Edo period) as well as its own, contemporary, legend. Thus, we hear the bell ringing as customers enter the subterranean cafe almost as a familiar character; clocks on the wall idiosyncratically tell different times; and the decoration is sepia-toned: at once classical and reinforcing of the importance of the events that take place within its walls. There is, of course, also a neat nod to Japanese attention to ceremony within the pouring of the coffee for the travellers – only by Kazu, who helps to run the cafe, and with the same mantras and routines accompanying each person’s journey. Both the cafe’s setting, as well as those who inhabit it, leap off the page at the reader.

The four people who travel – a young woman looking to change the course of a conversation with a boyfriend; a nurse seeking to secure the delivery of a personal letter she knows her husband living with advancing Alzheimer’s has written her; a woman trying to escape her destiny seeks one more conversation with her sister, on whom the load has otherwise fallen; and a pregnant mother seeking to meet the daughter she never knew – are all clearly looking for something and with successively more intense levels of emotion: and this is where the book really works. The tales all set highly believable, increasingly tragedic situations for their characters to inhabit and, while the sentimentality and romanticism of the stories is evidently strong (this is Japan), the author/playwright’s skill in relating them means that he never descends into corny mawkishness or nostalgia. There is both a tenderness and a kindness to the tales and we all need more of both.

The book’s translation is perhaps not quite fluent: the text has a tendency to stop and start rather than flow naturally, although this might also reflect the differences in the natural skill sets of authors and playwrights; and, while clearly also within the traditions of minimalism, it also appears excessively formal although the culture differences between 2014 Japan and 2014 Glasgow, for example, means that we shouldn’t read too much into that. Conversely, that means that it does sit somewhat oddly out of its form and original context and this rather impedes the delivery of the message. Some of the events require the reader to suspend not only reality but also overlook some of the weaknesses in the plotting.

The major criticism that could be levelled, however, is of the book’s gender-based differences: the men tend to be strong, silent types while the women, the travellers, are the ones who engage therefore in more of the sentimentality and romance of the theme. That would be a fair enough point, although there is also the practicality that the theatre troupe for whom the play was written had more women than men. Furthermore, I think the author is seeking to engage more in highlighting the emotional maturity required to understand both ourselves and, equally importantly, the others with whom we share at least parts of our lives. That’s of course not a preserve only of women – but none of the novel’s male characters, while themselves nuanced, have the maturity required to deliver the depths of such a message. In a short work with relatively few characters, this means that it is women who are called upon to deliver the insights that the author wants to get across. There’s power and strength conveyed in that, too.

At the same time, this provides an interesting study of the ability of the author – a man – to write convincing women characters while nonetheless delivering the insights and the messages that he has developed as a man.

Whether or not the urban legend about the cafe’s mystical powers is true is an open question, but the takeaway message is that we frequently have powers to change our futures, even if we are denied the opportunity to change our presents, provided that we understand both ourselves and the motivations and desires of others; and where we have the courage and the heart to change things. That’s an eternal message, perhaps, but it’s not one whose message has ever been lost however frequent the re-telling; and here we have a book whose premise delivers an interesting, and thoughtful, twist on precisely how to get that across.

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