If you could go back, would you? Or better yet- what would it mean to you to have a second chance at something?
There’s something so compelling and enduring about these questions, and yet they’re purely imaginative exercises. The moment you answer, you realize with a bitter sigh that you’ll never actually get the chance to return to a given point in your past to try and force a different outcome to the one you got. As the Three-Eyed Raven put it: the ink is dry. And yet we can’t help but imagine how things would have turned out if past events happened differently. Wouldn’t it be more productive (and healthy) to imagine a better future than a better past? What’s really going on here, when we know that time travel isn’t possible and probably never will be?
I’ve been thinking about this recently, because I just finished reading Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi. It’s a quirky little novel that’s themed around many of these questions. And given that the novel is a bestseller in Japan, it’s obvious that people have an appetite for them. In short, it’s about a mysterious café in the backstreets of Tokyo that’s rumored to be able to transport its patrons back in time.
After finishing the book, I asked my parents if there was a particular moment in their respective lives that they wished they could go back and do differently. At first, they were a little flummoxed. They asked what “going back” in this scenario entailed. That’s the biggest problem with these time travel questions- you end up having to come up with rules for something that doesn’t exist. It reminds me of an episode of The Ricky Gervais Show where Ricky and Steve ask Karl to pick a moment from his past he’d like to go back to. Karl can’t seem to get his head around the concept, and they spend five (hilarious) minutes just trying to clarify the nature of time travel process. Does going back mean returning to exactly who you were, as you were, at that moment? Or does it mean going back in time with the mind you have now, and your knowledge and memories of the original timeline? Does it mean returning as an observer, Ebenezer Scrooge style, an invisible fly-on-the-wall? If you do go back, are you stuck in that new timeline or do you have an assurance of returning to the present? If the latter, then how does that work?
What makes Before the Coffee Gets Cold so interesting is the way it answers these questions. Kawaguchi presents the most restricted use of time travel I’ve ever seen in fiction. In the novel, the patrons have to sit in a specific chair in the café from which they cannot move whilst back in the past. Since the café is underground and has an unchanging style, you can’t tell you’re back in the past just by looking. You also have to return to the present before the coffee gets cold (hence the title). And no matter what you try to do while in the past, you can’t change it. So if you go back in time to meet someone before they got murdered, nothing you can say or do will prevent that outcome. Some sequence of events will transpire to ensure that the timeline remains intact. How any of this is achieved isn’t explained, which is why this can’t be considered a science fiction novel in my opinion. I think of it more as an urban fantasy or a modern fairy tale. The act of time travel itself is unimportant, which is why Kawaguchi attributes it to this vague, paranormal brew of coffee. What the author is really interested in is more literary- the idea that the patrons of this café think they can fix their problems by changing the past, only to discover that what they really need is a more internal transformation. It suggests that, like the patrons drawn to the café, we aren’t interested in fixing the past so much as fixing the present. And improving your present circumstances requires both an honest look at the past and an acceptance of it.
I like the stipulation in the book that you have to drink the magical coffee before it goes cold, otherwise you become trapped in the past as a ghost. I interpret that as advocating for a healthy, moderated approach to the past in real life. If you don’t look back and reflect on your actions, you will never grow as a person. But if you dwell on the past excessively, then it will consume you. For example, when I was a teenager, I could sometimes be mean to my little brother. I’d tell him not to come near me at school or act like we knew each other- mostly because I didn’t want him to see me getting bullied. That way, in one part of my life at least, I could maintain this delusion of feeling like an alpha male. I shut him out and wasn’t a good older brother to him. I was self-centered. Whenever I look back on those memories, I tend to get depressed. I keep replaying them in my head, wishing I could go back to those moments as if loading an old save file in a game, and be a more nurturing or supportive older sibling to him. But you can’t save your game in real life. The ink is dry. Dwelling on such memories only serves to hurt myself in the present. That doesn’t mean I should suppress them, however. I think there is a healthy way to look back, which involves accepting that while I can’t change how I treated my brother when I was a teenager, I can use those memories as motivation to be there for him in the future.
This was my main takeaway from Kawaguchi’s novel: the necessity of making peace with the past in order to move forward in the present. Finding a way to take responsibility and not fall into self-loathing. Dwelling on my mistakes does nothing for the people I’ve hurt or let down in life. It’s self-indulgent. I’ve realized over the years that to truly help those that are still here, I have to stop torturing myself for hurting them. I have to accept responsibility and forgive myself. I can’t effectively help them in the present if I’m still in the past. Having learned this lesson in real life over the past few years, it was satisfying to see the various protagonists of Kawaguchi’s novel come to the same realization. They learn that revisiting the past is only productive if it’s a springboard for action in the present.