Imagine you are in a small theater (not likely these days). On the stage the scene is set like Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks; small and dark with a woman in white seated at the end of the counter. The setting stays the same and a small cast of characters come and go in four scenes. Crucial to the plot – a time portal carrying the time traveler back to an important event or conversation they want to rectify within the minutes before their coffee gets cold.
Toshiikazu Kawaguchi’s short novel was originally a play in Japanese, and it is easier to read if you imagine it still is. The themes of regret and anger are tempered by the possibilities of hope and change in the future, and these days we could all use a lesson in hope.
The novel is told over a series of small vignettes, each revolving around a specific trip one of the regulars of the cafe takes. The stories follow a theatrical setup – single location and only a handful of characters. Forgive the awkward translation and be open to the message.
What would you do if you could travel back in time for only a few minutes – until the hot steaming coffee poured into your cup got cold? This premise connects four chapter stories with related characters who each have different motivations to see their worlds again in the past. The cafe, named Funiculi, Funicula, has the reputation of being able to transport willing customers to another time, but only if the rules are followed. Only one seat in the cafe serves as the vehicle, and it is usually occupied by the same patron absorbed in reading her book; the woman in white fiercely guards her territory and only leaves her seat to go to the bathroom. She is, in fact, a ghost who did not follow the café’s most important rule – to finish drinking before the coffee gets cold. The time ravelers may only stay a short amount of time before being whisked back to their own time, but if they fail to drink the coffee before it gets cold, they will join the ghostly chorus.
A married couple, Kei and Nagare, are the current owners, while Nagare’s cousin, Kazu, a university student, helps out when she’s not in school. Regular customers include: businesswoman Fumiko who is desperate to be more open and vulnerable during her last meeting with her boyfriend Goro before he relocates to the U.S., nurse Kohtake wants one more opportunity to talk to her husband Fusagi before Alzheimer’s made him forget too much – including her. Bar owner Hirai needs to talk to her younger sister Kumi, whom she’s been avoiding for too many years. Finally, co-owner Kei, who is pregnant, bends the rules to go into the future to meet her unborn child.
Each chapter ends on a bittersweet note with the time traveler returning to the present, knowing it has not changed. And yet, Kawaguchi does offer a change of perspective to each from their brief experience reliving a past moment; they return with renewed hope for the future. Perhaps reworking a significant turning point in the past would not change the present, but recognizing its impact can affect the future and how we live in the present.
Kazu notes at the end of the book,
“No matter what difficulties people face, they will always have the strength to overcome them. It just takes heart. And if the chair (the time portal) can change someone’s heart, it clearly has its purpose.”
I made myself a cup of coffee to time how long it took to go cold. Not long. Better “Drink the coffee before it gets cold.” No time to waste.