The book I was reading over Christmas was a bit of a departure for me, an impulse buy on a bargain table at the local Barnes & Noble – Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a relatively short book, a collection of four related short stories. Hey, it was on sale, takes place in a coffee shop and had a bonus cat on the cover, so what’s not to like?
With a name like Kawaguchi, it probably should have occurred to me that it was a Japanese book, translated into English. But in fact it didn’t until I was several pages in, not that it mattered. It came out in Japan in 2015 and was released in the English version in 2020. In between those years it was made into a Japanese film, Cafe Funiculi Funicula, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it adapted into an American flick before long as well. It certainly had a sort of theatrical feel to the story and prose.
One thing I found interesting was the very style of that prose. It was clearly different than what we North Americans have gotten accustomed to reading. A little denser, perhaps, a little more poetic for sure. Even though set in the modern day, there is a distinctly “old”,literary feel to it. Kawaguchi goes to great lengths to describe the characters, and the setting, sparse as most of it is. “He was wearing a navy polo shirt and beige knee-length shorts. It was what he often wore on his days off. It must have been hot outside, as he was fanning himself with his black zippered portfolio…” One imagines most American writers would have described him, if at all like “he was dressed casually and fanning himself.” The effect is both charmingly poetic and yet a bit of a detour to quick consumption of the novel. As are the moderately-long list of characters, with names foreign and often similar-sounding to our ears – Hirai, Kazu, Kohtake, Kei… one can imagine how a Japanese reader reacts to a Western story full of Jordans and Josh’s and Jacksons.
All that noted, the story is still the thing in it, and it is quite a compelling one at that. Without too many spoilers, the setting is a mystical Japanese cafe, a small underground club, run by a small family and close friends. Limited seating, limited menu but a big reputation. It is rumored to be a place where if you ask, you can go back in time! Oh and it has a resident ghost too.
However, it’s not that simple for would-be time-travelers. There are any number of restrictions on their voyages. They can only sit at one seat…which is usually occupied. They only have a short time to spend in the past when they do go…until their coffee gets cold, in fact. And most importantly, whatever they do back in the past, it’s not going to change the present day…which sort of defeats the purpose for most. So, going back three weeks to place a bet on last week’s bowl game won’t add a dollar to your bank account when you return; asking out that girl who might have had a crush on you two years ago brings you back to your same single existence now, should that be the case.
Yet four different travelers, all cafe regulars, choose to do so …and find that even if the here and now looks the same, a different decision in the past can bring them to a better mindset now. Or change the way they will make decisions from today onwards.
As the Christian Science Monitor note, the prose is “uneven and tends to meander” however, it has an “unerring ability to find lasting emotional resonance”.
All in all, it seemed like an enjoyable enough little visit to a foreign city and perhaps, to the Twilight Zone. It also left me pondering if I’d bother trying to revisit the past, if the restrictions placed on it were as set out there? Couldn’t wander around, so there’d be no going to Dallas in November ’63 to try and stop Oswald…or see who really pulled the trigger even. No going to a club in L.A. In 1982 to meet a then-single and unknown Susanna Hoffs before her Bangles became a million-selling band. And even if it seemed like maybe a friend you had a coffee with five years ago had a great idea for a business that you both should have followed up on, going back to the conversation would leave that business unbuilt and you in the job you have today. Is it worth it?
Perhaps. Maybe there’d be time for one more phone call to that parent a few days before they passed away, say the things that were left unsaid. Maybe the guy playing the guitar on stage no one noticed ten years ago is now the next Bob Dylan. Going back there wouldn’t make you his manager or part of his jet-setting entourage now, but might give you a second chance to really pay attention, so today you could say “I remember seeing him when…”.
Then again, maybe just thinking such things can leave us more aware of making better choices today. If a 240 page book can accomplish that, it’s a worthy read in my estimation.