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This article is more than 1 year old.

A Japanese novel fuelled by coffee that’s too sweet

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Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s slim novel, Before the Coffee Gets Cold, was adapted from a prize-winning play by the author which became a bestseller in Japan in 2015. This year, it was made available in an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot.

A Japanese novel fuelled by coffee that’s too sweet
Caffeine is the fuel of capitalism. The internet is awash with people singing the praises of coffee: it perks you up, prepares you for the working day, and makes Mondays bearable. Search for “types of coffee drinkers” on Google and you’ll get more than 4,50,000 hits, from light roast snobs to decaf devotees to cappuccino fanatics to bean aficionados. All of whom, no doubt, love the productivity it engenders.
It wasn’t always thus. Many say that coffee’s origin can be traced to the Ethiopian plateau (although those from Yemen will disagree). Its popularity took off with cultivation and trade in the Arabian Peninsula. News of this “wine of Araby” spread to Europe, where coffee houses soon became hubs of social activity across cities on the continent. Of his first visit to a coffee house in London, Samuel Pepys wrote that he “found much pleasure in it, through the diversity of company and discourse.”
Such company and conversation – some seditious, some liberal -- in the original coffee houses were the initial reasons for the beverage’s popularity. There’s a faint echo of this in today’s coffee shops although their commercialisation, not to mention colonisation by the gig economy, would probably make Pepys beat a hasty retreat.
The Tokyo coffee shop that features in Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s slim novel, Before the Coffee Gets Cold, is quite a different place. Not only has it been brewing and serving coffee since 1874, but it also has a rather special feature: Visitors to the café have the opportunity to travel back in time. The novel was adapted from a prize-winning play by the author which became a bestseller in Japan in 2015. This year, it was made available in an English translation by Geoffrey Trousselot.
Ingenious touches
No Wellsian time travellers confronting the likes of childlike Eloi and warlike Morlocks appear in Kawaguchi’s novel. Instead, it’s confined to the goings-on in the café called Funiculi Funicula, after the melancholy Neapolitan song. This is located in a windowless basement off the main road, without air-conditioning and with just nine seats. On its sepia walls are three large antique clocks, all showing different times. These are but minor inconveniences to the customers because of the urban legend that claims the place can transport people back into the past.
There’s an elaborate set of rules to be followed for this procedure, which are repeated quite a few times in the course of the novel. First, there is nothing you can do in the past that will change the present. Then, the only people you can meet while in the past are those who have also visited the café. Further, there’s only one seat in the café that allows you to go back in time, and this is where you have to stay seated throughout. Finally, and importantly, you are served with a cup of coffee at the start of your time travel, and you have to return to the present before it gets cold.
Many of these instructions reveal the book’s stage origins, as do the well-defined entrances and exits signalled by the clanging of an entrance bell. Kawaguchi does try to offset this, though, by adding backstories as well as some scenes outside the café.
He places four people on the hot seat, so to speak. There’s an executive who’s been dumped by her boyfriend; a wife whose husband is suffering from Alzheimer’s; a bar-owner who’s estranged from her family; and a mother-to-be with a weak heart. Notably, all of these are women, although the distaff effect is somewhat spoiled by dismaying descriptions such as: “Blessed with well-defined features and petite lips, she had the face of a pop idol.” In addition, “her mid-length black hair shone and crowned her with a glowing halo.” Got it.
Despite this, it’s a sweet framework, and one that holds the interest. There are some ingenious touches, such as when one of the women suddenly decides to travel to the future, followed by the ramifications of this act. It’s unfortunate, then, that the sweetness becomes more and more pronounced as the plot progresses, with cloying sentiment taking over on one too many occasions.
The coffee served at Funiculi Funicula, we’re told, is made from mocha beans grown in Ethiopia. This is described as having a distinct aroma, with a bitter fruitiness and complex overtones. It’s a pity that Before the Coffee Gets Cold doesn’t possess more of the same qualities.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Read his columns here.
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