If we could travel through time, to what period would we choose to return? Japanese writer Toshikazu Kawaguchi poses this and other questions in his novel Before the Coffee Gets Cold. It tells a very enjoyable story that takes place entirely inside a tiny café in Tokyo, which holds a secret: the chance to travel through time.
A few ironclad rules determine the conditions of the journey.
The first is in some ways the most discouraging, namely, that the present cannot be changed. Many retreat in the face of this first, mandatory condition. What is the point, many cafe patrons think, of going back in time if the present is not changed?
The second rule is that you can only go back in time within the walls of the café. The third is that there is only one chair in the tiny cafe, from where time travel can occur and only when it is vacated by the ghost of a woman who gets up once a day to go to the bathroom. The fourth rule, finally, says that you can stay in the past as long as your coffee remains hot.
Faced with these conditions, many customers give up on time travel. Some do not, and among these are the protagonists of the four narratives in the novel. What unites these women and urges them to travel back in time is the desire for a different word: the regret of not having said, heard or read a word when it was timely.
We will not dwell on what happens in each of the stories, but a change does occur. However, it is not the present that changes, it is the person. “The present had not changed, but those two people had. Kotake and Hirai had returned to the present with their hearts transformed.”
In its lightness, the novel reminds us that what matters most is not so much changing the present as how one chooses to be in the present. This is its most beautiful and hopeful lesson, because it opens up the prospect of a different and reconciled future.