Japanese Literature Review: “Twins Teleport Tale” (フーガはユーガ) by Kotaro Isaka (伊坂幸太郎)

By | April 8, 2020

After a few months focusing on a classical Japanese translation project without much time spent on reading modern Japanese, I was eager to get started on “Twins Teleport Tale” by Kotaro Isaka, which I had picked up in my local Kinokuniya store late last year on a sale. My reasons for purchasing this book were the great cover (which I couldn’t help gazing at every time I went to the bookstore), the mysterious title and subtitle, plus the fact that I had read and enjoyed another book by the same author (“火星に住むつもりかい?”, roughly translated as “So you want to live on Mars?”) I also read the first page or two and it was interesting enough to keep my attention.

Before I get into the review I wanted to mention that “Teleport Twins Tale” is actually the subtitle of the book, printed in English on the cover. The reason I didn’t translate the actual title (フーガはユーガ) is that it’s very difficult to translate into English and retain the original meaning, at least with any natural-sounding wording. Ironically, in the story the title is used in a Japanese/English bilingual play on words (which is written on book’s back cover), but this doesn’t really help in translating it to English. While I do the appreciate the play on words, I think the “Teleport Twins Tale” title is significantly better than the original Japanese title. (On a side note, it does give away a little more information because surely there are Japanese people who don’t know the English word “Teleport”).

Anyway, as you might have guessed this book is about two twins who can do something related to teleportation. I won’t give away the details here, but I will say the concept extremely creative and acts as the basis for the book. In fact, this interesting premise gave me such high expectations for the rest of the book that they were hard to fulfill.

The book begins with one of the twins telling someone about important events in his life, most of them related to “it” (the teleportation thing) in some way or another. A good portion of the book continues with this style and has the flavor of an autobiography. While I guess the autobiographical angle can add a sense of realism for some readers, to me it detracted from my enjoyment since, after all, the person speaking is still alive to tell his tale. But from an early point in the novel this character states in plain language something along the lines of “there may be inconsistencies and untruths in what I am about to tell you.” This is essentially what is sometimes called “the unreliable narrator”, except that he is reliable about his unreliability. This adds an entire extra dimension to the biographical stories, making you wonder what is true and what is not.

As usual I don’t want to give away much of the story, but I will say that I fell into a serious slump midway through the book. Some of it was because of my high expectations about “it”, and some because I had lost interest in what was happening to the characters. Some of the characters seemed a bit bland and I was confused why they were even in the story to begin with.

Fortunately, the end of the book cleanly brought together various elements for a spectacular, dramatic conclusion that made me mostly forgive the mid-book boredom I’d struggled through. But I think if my reading speed had been faster then it would have been easier to get through some of the slower parts, so perhaps as a whole this book would be enjoyed more by native speakers.

The writing style of this book is clearly what I would call “popular fiction”: relatively short paragraphs and short sentences, with a good amount of dialogue. I felt that sensory descriptions were relatively infrequent, though there were a few creative metaphors used to good effect. The progression of events was pretty easy to follow and in a few places I even felt the author spoon-fed things a little too much, making me wish he had made the reader draw his or her own conclusions.  Overall the book’s writing style and plot progression reminded me of “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch, which was a pretty entertaining book. Even some of the key story events seemed something like you would see in a popular TV crime drama.

Pace concerns aside, the only other thing that bothered me about the story was the introduction of a perspective switch in one or more places that I felt would have had more impact if written differently. But I think this goes along with the spoon-feeding since telling what happened from another character’s perspective is sometimes the easiest way to explain certain events.

For those learning Japanese this book is easier than many other more wordy novels out there, but the author does tend to throw in some (what I felt to be) literary or highbrow phrases that I had to look up (one was 閑話休題), and there were a few kanji that I didn’t know either. A few places had furigana reading hints, but, like many adult-targeted novels, the publisher/editor/author does assume that readers know the fundamental joyo kanji characters. In any case I was left with the feeling that the author had a pretty good word and character vocabulary, though he was trying to use it sparingly to avoid estranging readers. This, plus the wordplay and self-introspection of one of the main characters, gave this book an “intellectual” tone, despite the fact it was clearly written for the general populace––which in and of itself is pretty impressive. 

By the way, above I alluded to my reading speed being a little slow, but that is more because Japanese is a second language to me as opposed to something specific about this book. In fact, because there are very few domain terms in this book (medical, technical, business, etc.), I think most Japanese learners would read this book at a faster pace than an author like, say, Jun Ikedo (one of my reviews of his books).

“Twins Teleport Tale” has a lot in common with “So you want to live on Mars?”, including the writing style, overall feel, and level of difficulty. However, I felt the biggest commonality was a sense of “justice” that pervaded both books as a key element that helped drive the story forward. There was also the idea of using technologies or phenomena that are almost possible and using them to support upholding some form of justice.

All things considered, I think I enjoyed “So you want to live on Mars?” a little more than “Teleport Twins Tale,” but both books are worthy reads.

By the way, after reading the book I realized that the cover was not only aesthetically pleasing, but skillfully hinted about a certain story element. If you end up reading the book, let me know if you figure out what I mean.

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