I’ve always been interested in the concept of time travel, its philosophical implications as well as the fun, mad practice of it, so it was inevitable that I was to devour Before the Coffee Gets Cold, a Japanese novel about a cafe which can send you back in time. But there are hard, immovable rules: to return to the past is not as simple as other literature makes it seem.
I found it to be a frustrating book, unsure of exactly what writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi sought to achieve at points. The writing is often overly laborious in its emotions, spelling out to the reader what we can already infer from simpler and more effective lines of prose. Indeed, the tone frequently felt jarring, a mismatch between the fantastical, supernatural components of the plot and the manner in which characters either explained or discovered them. Rather than mystery, wonder or intrigue, much of the writing felt already-cold, matter-of-fact about matters very much non-factual. It’s a perfectly valid literary style but it was, at times, difficult to discern whether this was really the intended style at all: regardless, it didn’t work for me.
He liked to travel. It wasn’t the travel itself that he liked, but the opportunity to visit gardens in different places. Kohtake always arranged to take her holidays at the same time as him so that they could go together. He would complain and say he was going for work, but that didn’t bother her. While on a trip, his brow seemed permanently furrowed, but she knew that this was how he looked whenever he was doing something he liked.
Where Kawaguchi’s prose does excel is in its moments of earnestness between characters, away from the entrapments of time travelling logic. When he seeks simplicity, the humanity within these people shines through, and the tugging of heartstrings commences. Before the Coffee is composed of four short stories, each focusing on a different character’s attempts at travelling through time, which gradually intertwine further and further. The initial promise of the book is almost anthological – four distinct tales. On one hand, I came to appreciate the book’s structure for how it deepened understandings of the protagonists and lent itself to becoming an ensemble piece; for those whose stories have come and gone, their subsequent reappearances become something like epilogues, reminding us that their lives extend beyond the confines of narrative structures. But on the other, the Funiculi Funicula cafe is the subject of urban legends from across history – we are given the slightest impression of a deeper mythology, of its presence connecting numerous disparate lives, but the focus is instead solely on those in the same time and place, growing closer together. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to see more of the promised myth and escape the pre-established cast, which would have opened up Kawaguchi’s world and introduced greater stakes. Even though the journey back in time is riddled with complicated rules and procedures, which can culminate in deadly consequences, the sense of danger to these characters grows less great as the plot moves forth.
Despite the eponymous rule of time travel in this universe, the most important rule, the one which drives the drama, relates to causality: no matter what, you can’t change the past. The literature of time travel is rooted in the idea that past, present and future are in flux, opening up the possibilities of butterfly effects, time loops and branching alternate timelines. But not here, a world in which there is only one timeline, and everything that has happened has happened.
I’ll admit, when I first read the rule, I questioned what the point of the book was. Why travel back in time if you can’t change the present or future? Indeed, when coupled with the obtusely irritating other rules of the cafe, why bother at all? It was the latest frustration in what was proving a frustrating book. But, gradually, I came to really like Kawaguchi’s theory of time. In ruling that one cannot change the past, he strips away the jargon-ridden paradoxes so common in time travel stories and boils the narrative down to a focus on the human condition. The matter of ‘why’ is the same regardless of whether one can alter the past or not: to return to what has already occurred necessitates regret, an understanding that things may have turned out better if we had just behaved a little differently.
But, more often than not, the regret can never be healed by reconfiguring the events. Regret is internal, and can only be solved by delving into one’s soul. In this sense, Before the Coffee Gets Cold is the most realistic portrayal of time travel in contemporary literature; the characters go back because to return offers closure, and a space to learn the lessons that need to be learned. Kawaguchi’s ultimate message for the reader is that the events may be fixed, but what is always in flux – in this world, and in ours – is ourselves, constantly reconfigured with every passing day, and we have the power to control ourselves and our emotions. It’s a radical, even forward-looking message for a book about nostalgia. Don’t focus on changing the past: change the future.