But perhaps that which should be said must be said – and Neuman undoubtedly says it beautifully. Fracture returns several times to describe the practice of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold. “When a piece of pottery breaks, the kintsugi craftspeople place powdered gold into each crack to emphasise the spot where the break occurred. Exposed rather than concealed, these fractures and their repair occupy a central place in the history of the object. By accentuating this memory, it is ennobled. Something that has survived damage can be considered more valuable, more beautiful.” Obvious? Yes, but also important. True.
Regardless of whether Fracture ultimately sells its thesis, this is an elegant, compassionate and wide-ranging tribute to the resilience of humans, wherever they fall on the genius scale.
Like Neuman’s Traveller of the Century (2009), Fracture is a novel of ideas rather than of plot or character, despite its reasonably conventional structure. There are fascinating disquisitions here into cultural difference, language, illness, fear and grief – enough, in fact, to strain the seams of a novel in which so much more is told than shown. At the end we learn that the journalist on Yoshie’s trail has almost finished his investigation into nuclear disasters, but “the problem is that his focus is expanding at the same speed as his research, and the horizon is broadening more quickly than he is able to take notes. The more he writes, the more he has left to write”. The same may have happened to Andrés Neuman when faced with such a wealth of material and metaphorical possibilities.
Watanabe is an outsider, obviously, in the West, but as a hibakusha he feels set apart in Japan. Can such fractures ever be put together? Glimmering in the background are references to kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold to make the fracture itself a thing of beauty. This is an ambitious, serious novel, and although it is not always successful, it is often golden.
Perceptively translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Fracture is a novel for our times and astonishingly relevant. Radiation, like coronavirus, is an invisible killer. After Fukushima, the official communications about the catastrophe prove unreliable. As one character observes: “the politicians say one thing and then the exact opposite. They don’t want people to panic, only to be reasonably fearful. That’s impossible.” Neuman suggests “truth depends less on data than on underlying metaphors”, and that it lies somewhere in the cracks between real events and fictions.
If a Japanese disaster seems an unlikely topic for Neuman, he was struck, he has said, at how most human cultures “seem equally capable of both powerfully rebuilding and self-destructing”.
As news spreads about the reach of the disaster, Yoshie is amazed to read that “the previous day’s earthquake may have moved the whole country by a couple of meters, and shifted the earth’s axis by ten or fifteen centimetres. Nothing occurs in only one place, he reflects, everything occurs everywhere.” The global reverberations of catastrophe - from Alaska to Sumatra - feel all too pertinent amid our present pandemic. (In a prescient detail, after the earthquake, Yoshie finds the Tokyo supermarket shelves empty of toilet paper and diapers.)
We find ourselves immersed in a story about a man written by a man but narrated by four women, an act of ventriloquism mirrored by reading the book in its easy-flowing translation (by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) from Spanish. On his travels, Watanabe learns Spanish as well as French and English. That leaves him incomplete in any language, including Japanese, which shifts during his decades of absence.