Ever since H.G. Wells put a British inventor in a time machine in 1895, the possibilities of visiting the past — or, in Wells’ case, the future — have intrigued many Western novelists. From sci-fi writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Octavia Butler to the adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge and Harry Potter, getting unstuck in time often helps to illuminate the present.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot.
224 pages
PICADOR, Fiction.

Aside from manga, however, Japanese literature isn’t known internationally for a signature work on time travel. Enter Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s poignant debut “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” from 2015, which now is published for the first time in English.

It is the story of a cafe named Funiculi Funicula (after a famous Neapolitan song) where the guests can go back in time. Not nostalgically, as in a kissaten (old-fashioned coffee shop) full of salarymen that have been sitting there since the 1950s, but a place where you can return to your own past or visit the future. Think magical realism set in a Tokyo cafe.

But in classic Japanese fashion, the magic is hemmed in by protocol. Where Westerners have agency on the trip — perhaps even the hope of correcting the past — the cafe has strict rules for returning in time. As the coffee is poured and you leave “in a shimmering steam,” you must stay inside the cafe and meet only those you have previously seen there; you must return to the present before your coffee gets cold; and most importantly, no matter what happens, your experience cannot change the present.

With a sense of perverse futility, Kawaguchi’s characters move through time knowing they can’t make a difference. It’s a common theme in Japanese literature — resigning oneself to the impossibility of change — that helps avoid the “grandfather paradox,” wherein changing the past during time travel causes inconsistencies later on. But don’t the rules take all the fun out of time travel?

“I wanted characters ready to travel despite the bothersome rules,” says Kawaguchi. “I wanted the story to be realistic. My characters can’t change the present, even if sad things happen, like a disaster or the death of a lover. I wanted to write about how people must face reality. I had to have this rule, so that the story was more than a dream.”

Thus we meet Fumiko Kiyokawa, a business woman who wants to redo a talk with her boyfriend, who left her to move to America. There is the nurse Kohtake, longing to meet her sick husband, who can no longer recognize her. Was the letter he chose not to give her a final declaration of love?

There is Hirai, who wants to tell her little sister she feels sorry for shunning her. Finally, we meet Kei Tokita setting out for the future to see if, despite her weak heart, her unborn child has a chance to live. As the four women meet in the cafe, all hoping against hope, they must wait for a ghost to vacate the seat that shakes time.

As with other Japanese writers known overseas — such as Toshiki Okada or Yukiko Motoya — Kawaguchi started out as a playwright. A former director and writer for the group Sonic Snail, he initially penned “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” for the theater.

The play met with critical acclaim, prompting Kawaguchi to turn it into a novel that became a bestseller in Japan. It required a different style of writing, and the measured pace of the novel — extended scenes in one setting, ample descriptions of characters’ movements — often betrays its origin on the stage.

“When I wrote the play, I first decided the title, then wrote the basic story and the last scene,” explains Kawaguchi. “But then changing it to a novel, I had to flesh out the story while I kept thinking about the actors and actresses from the play. It was my first time to write a novel, so it took lots of rewrites!”

Kawaguchi admits that his newfound fame obliges him to advance his craft. It will be interesting to see how “Before the Coffee Gets Cold” will be received by international readers, who may not share the Japanese stomach for extra spoonfuls of sentimentality. In fact, the movie based on the novel — released in Japan last year and advertised with the promise “You’ll cry four times!” — was described by this newspaper’s critic as a schmaltzy “weak brew.”

Still, Kawaguchi meets Western tastes with an all-female cast of time travelers. As interest grows internationally to hear the voices of Japanese women, he emphatically renders heroines coping with loss and social expectations. Was this choice strategic, to make the book more appealing to readers abroad?

“Not at all — there were simply more actresses than actors at the theater,” laughs Kawaguchi, who believes that the novel is universal. “I want to write meaningfully about human emotions. I hope that the story resonates, not only with people in other countries, but also with people of different ages.”

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