Postal Reading group
October 2022
Notes on the book Before the coffee gets cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Two books by Japanese authors in succession in the same group: clearly coincidences do happen. Of course, that is also where the coincidence stops as Before the coffee gets cold is a very different book from last month’s book The woman in the white kimono, so I won’t make anything more of the Japanese theme, although it is worth observing that this book is a difficult one to characterise in many ways.

The basic idea behind the story is that there is a small basement café if a back street of Tokyo which serves a distinctive coffee for its small clientele of discerning customers. However, it also offers its customers a unique service: it can send them back in time. This presents an interesting variation on the ever popular idea of time travel. Forget science fiction and elaborate ‘time machines’, all it takes in this book is a specially brewed cup of coffee and a few other, apparently arbitary, restrictions.

Of course, certain restrictions on time-travel are widespread, such as the common idea of not being able to change the course of history, a very wise limitation to avoid some of the philosophical paradoxes which would otherwise arise. The problem is that, in my experience, authors very rarely seem to stick to the rules, or muddle them up. In this case there seems to be some confusion between not being able to change history, or not being able to try. Very often it is the latter which is really intended with time travellers reduced to the status of observers. Many of the other restrictions, such as being limited to just one specific chair in the café, would seem to be intended to minimise the risk of making some inadvertent changes to the course of history. Indeed, you might be forgiven for thinking that some were contrived specifically to reduce the number of customers requesting this most unusual ‘service’. Given what can be achieved it scarcely seems worthwhile. In my case, the impossibly bitter coffee would probably make it a non starter!

Inevitably, however, despite repeated explanations of the rules, many customers do still want to go ahead with time travel: there are four such stories in this book, and I now understand that there are a further two books in the series. For the benefit of those who care about chronological order, this is the first book. However, if the others are anything like the first, the order doesn’t really matter: perhaps ironic, or appropriate, for a book featuring time-travel. Likewise, this book is better viewed as a collection of short stories around a common theme than any form of continuous narrative. Each story concerns a specific time-travel incident in the café; the wife seeking to reassure her husband who was showing the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, or the mother who wanted to travel forward in time (interestingly all the others wanted to go back) to find out if her daugther was born healthily.

This is the major problem with the book in my opinion: as a series of short stories there is no continuous narrative or plot. Worse, I can’t really discern any moral behind the stories. While there does seem to be a hint of more philosophical comments in the stories, its not entirely clear what that might be. What does come across is that time-travel is difficult (I didn’t ever think otherwise), and that the various restictions necessary to avoid inconsistency mean that it probably isn’t worthwhile (despite several happy customers apparently thinking otherwise).

While there are some common themes between the four stories, these seem to concentrate on the quirky details of the café, such as the three clocks, only one of which tells the correct time, the resident ghost (failure to drink the coffee in time carries a high price) and the lack of air conditioning. Similarly, there are many differences in writing style between the four stories, with considerable focus of describing small and presumably inconsequentual details, such as descriptions of people’s dress. The unfortunate ghost is frequently noted to have been dressed incongruously for the time of year. The repetition of the rules is another common theme in the writing, as is the running account of all those who enter and leave the café, with the result that the stories read like the stage directions in a play, complete with the ‘clang-dong’ made by the bell on the door!

As a technical aside, the café’s ability to maintain a comfortable temperature in Summer without air conditioning may be intended as a happy consequence of the resident ghost. However, while many accounts seem to relate an unexplained drop in temperature with ghostly activity, I suspect that such a spontaneous decrease in entropy would contravene the laws of thermodynamics. Likewise, while some boldly claim that time-travel to the future may be possible, going back in time may be impossible for similar reasons: time flows in one direction, just as entropy must always increase.

In summary, while this book offers an unusual take on time travel, the lack of a continuous narrative or plot makes it difficult to follow. While the short story format means that plot becomes less important, and there is an element of commonality between the stories, I was unable to discern any significance to the stories beyond the obvious ones. Likewise the repetition and details in the writing such as the three clocks suggests some kind of importance which I fail to grasp. After a while this only makes the book more difficult to read. As with many books featuring time-travel, despite the various restrictions, it doesn’t really grapple with the philosophical difficulties behind the idea. While the idea of being able to go back in time simply by drinking a cup of coffee may appeal, the warning of the café's resident ghost is unnecessary to convince me that it is probably a bad idea.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler