“In a back alley in Tokyo there is a café which has been serving carefully brewed coffee for more than one hundred years. But this coffee shop offers a unique experience – the chance to travel back in time.”
A review of Before the coffee gets cold written by Toshikazu Kawaguchi trans. Geoffrey Trousselot (Picador). Meredith at Dolce Bellezza is hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge 14.
Here is a strange little book. Good, but strange. It is a rewrite of a work that was first performed as a play and in terms of its setting, it really feels like it. The action takes place in a basement café which contains no natural light, a few tables and a couple of seats at the bar. That’s it. Nothing else. Apart from the ghost. That’s a lady in a flowery dress who sits all day drinking coffee and reading a book and only rises from her seat once during the day (or night) to go to the toilet.
No, I didn’t know ghosts needed the loo either but this is fiction. The seat that the lady in the dress sits in is very important to the story, because those who sit in this very seat have the option to travel in time – either back to the past, or forward to the future. But there are rules. Loads and loads of rules:
- the time traveller cannot leave the seat for any reason
- the present cannot change
- a cup of coffee must be entirely consumed before it gets cold – that is all the time allowed
These strange rules are minor distractions to the far bigger questions with which the book engages. If you could go back (or forward)in time for the length of time that it takes a small cup of coffee to cool – and given that you cannot leave your seat – who would you speak to or see? What would you say? Four characters in the book choose to do this, to speak to a lover, receive a letter they failed to receive the first time round, see a sister one last time or the daughter they won’t get a chance to meet.
I did feel that this story was essentially a visual construct and based around dialogue, so at its heart, I think, this book is still a play. Also the rule that the present cannot change is slightly disingenuous because if you have done those things, been back to have that conversation or read that letter, if you have met that person that you didn’t originally meet or said something you didn’t originally say, then even if externally nothing has changed for you when you return to the present, internally, everything might be different.
An unexpected addition to my Japanese literature challenge posts has been provided by Rune Sister (thank you) in the form of The Bells of Old Tokyo: Travels in Japanese Time, Anna Sherman (Picador, 2020)
I haven’t read this yet but it looks fascinating. Described by one reviewer as “… a subtle, beautifully written meditation on the transition from the fixed hierarchical life of old Edo (as Tokyo used to be known) to the anything-goes dynamism of the modern mega-metropolis the city has become …”.
“For more than two hundred years, the first Bell of Time rang the hours from within the prison of the Tokugawa shoguns. Three strikes, twelve times a day.”
Imagine being a prisoner and listening to the endless tolling of that bell.
Well, no-one needs to listen to that anymore but imagining the sound is fertile literary ground. I have been fortunate enough to visit Tokyo (the featured image of three ladies in traditional kimonos for this post is my own photo – applause please, thank you, thank you). Tokyo is definitely in its modern mega-metropolis mode – it is a most overwhelming experience but in a good way. The crossing in Shibuya is famous from being featured in a film called Lost in Translation which starred Bill Murray, and although I have seen the film I have no recollection of the crossing but a number of good folk were at pains to point it out. It was clearly visible from our hotel and I remember watching hundreds and hundreds of people going back and forth, back and forth, when the lights changed. Shinjuku is a kind of Piccadilly circus of Tokyo and incredibly busy. Lots of shops and restaurants. Strange to think of it now, all those crowded places mostly deserted. Japan has fared much less badly in the pandemic than the UK (we’re on a par with Bolsonaro in Brazil apparently) probably because they have handled it a heck of a lot better.
I have it in mind to do a Lives of the Artists series of reviews. I will start with Jan Caeyers Beethoven, A Life (University of California Press, 2020) Translated by Brent Annable. This book comes in at a cool 537 pages and I loved, loved, loved every one of them. I am also currently reading a biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera.
If anyone can recommend good biographies of artists – whether musicians, painters, writers, etc please leave me a comment.
3 responses to “Before the coffee gets cold”
Love this review!!! I hope you don’t mind, but I quoted your review in my review of a different novel by the same author. Please let me know if you would prefer I delete it.
Not at all Kuri I am happy that you liked the piece. Thanks for letting me know. Feel free to quote away but I think protocol is to link back to the original post.
I find this so interesting. I am grateful to read this.