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Poignant novel set in Tokyo (before the coffee gets cold)

10th October 2019

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, poignant novel set in Tokyo. Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot.

Poignant novel set in Tokyo

A magical mystery novel set in a basement cafe named the Funiculi Funicula which of course is the title of a Neapolitan song to commemorate the opening of the first funicular railway on Mount Vesuvius. A coincidence? I think not. A cast of characters who pass in and out to the sonorous clank of the door ringer… clang-dong… reminiscent perhaps of a funicular motion, in and out, up and down.

It is delightfully and simply written. There is an urban myth doing the rounds that a certain chair in the establishment enables a person to travel back and beyond the present. There are rules aplenty if you are tempted…. The seat in fact is already occupied and the only time a new person wishing to travel from the present is when the occupant makes a visit to the toilet.

You can only commune with people if they themselves have visited the cafe; and more importantly, the occupier of the seat must complete their session before the coffee, with which they have been served, gets cold… otherwise dire things might come to pass.

At first sight this is a simple little book, simply written. Yet the ideas contained within the prose are through provoking and often poignant. Four visitors need closure on specific events: one woman needs to obtain a letter written to her by her husband who has now developed early onset Alzheimer.  Others need to meet the daughter they never actually got to know … confront a man who left and went to America… see a sister one final time. It ponders the what if nature of our desires and the reality of being able to fulfil one’s yearning. Indeed, what would you change if you could go back in time?

I could very much see the deeper issues that the author is addressing, often with a little humour and a good deal of insight. And yet. I have loved The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide and recently enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards, Fiction, with a Sense of Place 2019) – novels I felt were of a similar nature and length. Yet I couldn’t get beyond the simplistic prose and the repetition of the rules and the coming and going of the visitors to the cafe. It is in many ways a lovely read but I felt it never really got under my skin.

It feels very Japanese but setting in terms of TripFiction is not strong.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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