Before the coffee gets cold is a poignant and affirming story about a cafe that can transport people back in time. Adapted from an award-winning play by Toshikazu Kawaguchi and translated into English by Geoffrey Trousselot, the novel is divided into four parts. Each part tells the narrative of a different visitor wanting to travel in time, like jilted lover Fumiko who wishes to return to the past to persuade her boyfriend not to leave her for a job abroad.
Taking place entirely in a charming cafe that has only three seats at the counter and three two-seater tables, Before the coffee gets cold has a warm and cosy feeling. From the distinctive “CLANG-DONG”, signifying an arriving patron, to the ghostly woman who sits in the same seat wearing summer clothes year-round, there’s a comfort in its familiarity. The cafe becomes almost a living entity in itself, like an ever-watching visitor.
There is one particular seat in the cafe that allows the person who occupies it to travel in time. As is often the case with time travel, there are rules:
1. The only people you can meet are those who have visited the cafe.
2. There is nothing you can do that will change the present.
3. It is only possible to go back in time when seated at a particular seat in the cafe.
4. While back in time, you must stay in that seat and that seat alone.
5. You have to return before the coffee gets cold.
The limitations of time-travel in this cafe mean that it’s highly situational. Only a visitor with a personal connection to the history and patrons of the cafe will ultimately find it beneficial to reconnect with a person from their life in some way. Those visitors seem drawn to the cafe. They appear in each other’s stories like a supporting cast of characters: exiting stage-left, only to reappear in the next chapter drinking a second cup of coffee. Even when someone leaves, their spirit remains through the other patrons in the cafe: almost like they never left.
In between the emotional highs – of which there are many – there’s an overwhelming sense of stillness. These pauses reflect what is commonly referred to in Japanese as “ma”: the negative space or lull in between intense moments to make them resonate. Like the silence in between claps. It is, after all, the quiet in-between notes that create music. And it is the quiet periods of reflection in this novel that compel the sentimental moments to linger on.
This book stayed with me. I thought about it often after I read it for the first time, and had to go back and re-read it within the same year. I found comfort in it. It’s one of those books to read late at night curled up in bed or with rain pattering on the windowpanes.
Kawaguchi’s play, which inspired the novel, remains somewhat of a mystery. When reading the book I could almost imagine the intimacy of being at a local theatre, with the only lights a permanent sepia hue over the stage and its cafe interior but there is not (to my knowledge) an English version of the play outside of Japan. There has subsequently been a film adaptation called Cafe Funiculi Funicula. The film appears to be available on Netflix in Japan or on DVD/Blu-ray with English subtitles.
My heart was captured by this beautiful novel. I can’t wait to read its sequel Before the coffee gets cold: Tales from the Cafe.