“The present doesn’t change.” — Toshikazu Kawaguchi
The word “coffee” is in the title — I require no other justifications to read the book. I was not disappointed.
The book is divided into four episodic stories happening in a basement cafe, Funiculi Funicula. A lady who wishes to understand why her lover is leaving her, a wife who wonders about the message her husband is planning to give to her, a sister who wants to talk to her dead sister one last time after avoiding her for years and the cafe owner’s sick wife who seeks to meet her unborn daughter.
The problem? They are unable to circumvent what happens in the present and they must follow a long list of rules in order to time-travel successfully and return to the present safely. And through all these, the waitress Kazu serves them coffee in that one and only seat which fulfils their wishes.
Personally, I enjoy how the four short stories unfold. Kawaguchi expanded a simple idea into a short story using simple language. Nothing fanciful, nothing earth-shattering, nothing convoluted. Just four stories of people time-travelling in a cafe without the complicated laws of physics to distract me with a world of “what ifs”.
I also particularly like the way Kawaguchi describes the setting of the cafe, as well as the colourful characters in the cafe. No character is a simple star in their own story and they continue to appear in each other’s story. The cast is assembled neatly into the cafe. For me, this narrative technique brings the stories to life. I can almost envision myself in the cafe, observing the events as they happen.
And of course, the quote perfectly summarises the book in its entirety. Despite the time-travelling element in the book, it is never about going to the past or future to change the present. It is also never about inspiring or being inspired to become a better person.
The tourists marvelled at the historical cathedral as they listened to the guide’s explanation. “Built in 1807, this building has witnessed disasters, plagues and wars and withstood the passing of time. Of course, every region has its own stories and what good is a cathedral without any vampire stories?”
Everyone laughed at the offhand joke.
“Well, as it turned out, there were stories, not of vampires but of werewolves,” the guide continued. “It was rumoured that there was a colony of werewolves living at the edge of the forest, stealing into a nearby village for food, and worse, for women. And it is rumoured that finally, the villagers had enough so one night, all the womenfolk would hide in a cathedral while the menfolk fought with the werewolves outside the cathedral. This is the very cathedral, people.”
The group was hushed after the story.
“Well, moving on…” the guide’s voice trailed off as he led the group away from the cathedral.
But the ending to the story? The werewolves never died – they could never die, granted with immortality. So they were imprisoned instead, in the deepest part of the cathedral for 200 years.
I dream a little dream — a secret dream of being a storyteller — to spread open a blank paper of possibilities and bring fantasy into reality. I wish to wander with ideas in the day and chase the words down at night; to give vibrant voices to silent thoughts; to create pleasure in mundane. I wish to poet the painful wisdom of maturity; to fiction fake worlds of memories; to weave the fabric of life with tapestries of experiences.
Let me live a life of a storyteller — translating thousands of lives with my pen and paper. No more weariness of a workhorse trudging through long murky road. Let me live a life of a storyteller — transcribing tragedies into comedies with happy endings. No more slavery of a worker ant circling the debris of what could not be whole again. Let me live a life of a storyteller — scripting merciful deaths to despair and despondency.
No more scavenging of a worker bee in the wild reporting to the beehive at the command of a whimsical queen bee. No more shod ox ploughing fields or shackled elephant performing in a circus. No. I shall be pleased with the precious lifeline of writing my time away.
“Unless it is opened, a book possessing great power or an epic story is a mere scrap of paper.” — Sosuke Natsukawa
I shall be brutally honest: I bought this book because of the picture of a cat and some books on the cover. And I did not regret my arbitrary decision. It was fascinating.
The book is structured in an episodic manner and begins with the aftermath of the death of the protagonist’s grandfather. Deeply affected, Rintaro, the protagonist, has yet to fully process and accept this fact, trapped in his memory of his grandfather’s knowledge and love for books. Until a talking cat suddenly appears in front of him.
This is when Rintaro’s adventures start as he travels through four labyrinths with the cat as his guide and his classmate, Sayo, who cannot stand him being withdrawn from everyone. Rintaro is also forced to draw on his courage and memory of his grandfather during his journey through the labyrinths. Each labyrinth is an allegory about different types of readers, challenging Rintaro’s perspective and love towards books.
A reader who reads to impress but not to enrich, an academic who reads for the gist but not enjoying the process, a publisher who cares about profits but not literary preservation and a lady who reads so much her perception of reading is warped. Rintaro converses with them to understand their rationales and expresses his opinions regarding their actions as well.
What I enjoy about this book is neither the defence of reading nor the relevance of reading in current times. Rather, it is the growth of Rintaro from a shut-in — a hikikomori — into a confident proprietor of a bookshop. The bits and pieces of his introspection, as well as observations of his surroundings and Sayo’s attitude towards him.
While it is not exactly a coming-of-age story, I still find Rintaro’s growth interesting to read — the growth mirrors the despair one faces in the event of a closed one’s death and the resilience of walking out from that shadow. The ending note is what I enjoy most about the book. It is hopeful but not overly optimistic, typical of a slice-of-life genre in which there is no definite answer.