Translated from the Japanese by Geoffrey Trousselot
Before the Coffee Gets Cold was a huge hit in Japan when it was first published in 2015 and, after translation, has proven to be extremely popular internationally. It includes many tropes of Japanese literature -the focus on family structures, fantastical elements, café culture- and yet, having read a lot of Japanese literature over the last few years I found this novel very slight and a little flat. It felt a bit generic and forgettable to me. It is, however, interestingly structured. The novel is split into four distinct sections, each one focused upon a regular customer in the basement café where the novel is set. Though the cast of characters all appear in each section, each of the quarters is clearly devoted to a particular person or couple.
The café itself is an intriguing conceit. If a customer sits in a particular chair it is possible to travel back to the past or forward to the future to meet another customer in the same café. Unfortunately, there is an ever-growing list of caveats and rules when it comes to the time travelling seat. Customers may only travel once, cannot change the present and must return before their coffee gets cold. As a magic realist writer, I found this scenario really appealing but was a little disappointed by how Kawaguchi developed it. He never seems to fully exploit or explore the potential of time travel and each escapade resolves much too neatly. The novel’s ending, in particular, feels a little too like a Hallmark movie to be truly satisfying.
The second section of Before the Coffee Gets Cold, is entitled “Husband and Wife” and follows Fusagi, an older Japanese man who has recently been diagnosed with dementia and his wife Kohtake who is a nurse. The scene begins when Fusagi drops into the café to leave a letter for his wife. Kohtake is sitting at a table in plain sight. This is the first time her husband has not recognised her, and she is naturally quite upset. The women who work in the café try their best to comfort their friend. The novel gives the reader an interesting snapshot of how dementia is viewed culturally in Japan. As a nurse, Kohtake insists that she will be able to look after her husband’s physical needs when the illness begins to remove his independence. She will put his needs above her own desires as his partner. Later, upset by the deterioration in her husband’s condition, Kohtake asks to use the time travelling chair to return to a point in the past where her husband was well and unaware of his condition. She’d like to spend a few minutes with the old Fusagi, before his personality began to change. Kohtake does not travel back far enough. She meets her husband at a point where he already knows his diagnosis though he’s carefully hiding his symptoms from her. Fusagi insists that he does not want to become a patient to his wife. He wants her to promise that she will leave him to professional carers when his dementia advances to the point that Kohtake can no longer see him as her husband.
There’s so much potential in this novel. Kawaguchi could have explored the complex power structures and emotional connections inherent within a relationship where one of the partners develops dementia. He could have taken a longer look at the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes to both dementia and how the elderly are perceived. I’d have loved him to fully unpick the huge moral question of whether you’d change the future if you could. Instead, he gives us a charming story about a couple and a magical chair. It’s a neat little dementia narrative and the fantastical elements do not jar but I can’t help but wish we’d been given a little more depth.
Before the Coffee Gets Cold was published by Picador in 2019