‘Fracture’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

Whereas my first review this week for Spanish-Language Literature Month was a purely Argentinean affair, today’s choice has slightly more complicated origins.  It’s a book by a writer with a foot in two different countries, and it features a man roaming the world, hoping to escape his past.  However, the events of his youth, as they are wont to do, catch up with him in an unexpected manner, and as he sets off to explore a turbulent present, he can’t help but reflect on a rather fragmented past…

*****
After a couple of shorter works (Talking to Ourselves, The Things we Don’t Do), Fracture (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, review copy courtesy of Granta Books and Australian distributor Allen & Unwin) sees Argentinean-Spanish writer Andrés Neuman returning to the lengthy style of his breakthrough work, Traveller of the Century.  This is a very different kind of novel, though.  Far from the earlier tongue-in-cheek historical romp, this latest book is a more sober, sombre tale, focusing on one man and a lifetime of troubles.

We begin in the company of the retired Yoshie Watanabe at a Tokyo train station on the 11th of March, 2011, as he is about to make his way home before the inevitable flood of commuters makes his trip less comfortable.  Today, though, is not an ordinary day, and when the rumbling starts, Watanabe knows that something big has happened, but it’s only when he finally manages to reach the safety of his apartment that he learns the full extent of the tragedy to have hit the country.  Something terrible has happened up in Fukushima, and as he tries to take in just what’s going on, calls and messages start to come in from old friends all over the world.

It’s at this point that the stories diverge, with Fracture using alternating chapters to head off in a couple of different directions.  One strand, told by the elderly Watanabe in 2011, describes how he absorbs the news of the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, radiation leak) and how it leads him to reflect on his life.  Having eventually reached a point where the information provided online and on TV no longer suffices, he decides to travel to the region and see what has happened with his own eyes.

Between these passages, though, there’s a very different story as four women in different countries have their say about Watanabe.  His work as a manager at an electronics company took him all over the world, and in chapters set in Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Madrid, his lovers look back at how he came into their lives and the changes he made to them.  As we learn more about him from the women who knew him best, a picture gradually emerges of a man who has fled his homeland – with good reason, as it turns out.  Having survived Hiroshima, Japan is a country of painful memories…

From the above description, you’ll hopefully have realised how apt the title is, both for the structure and the scattered focus, and that’s deliberate, with Neuman embracing the messy nature of his novel.  In the first pages, a passing comment provides hints as to how the story will proceed:

This explains perhaps his growing admiration for the ancient art of kintsugi.  When a piece of pottery breaks, the kintsugi craftspeople place powdered gold into each crack to emphasize 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 valuable, more beautiful.
pp.11/12 (Granta Books, 2020)

The wonderful Granta cover design (attributed to Keenan) runs with this beautifully, joining fragments of old photographs with powdered gold, and this proves to be the way in which the writer constructs his story, in essence an occasionally messy hybrid of several kinds of books.  There’s a striking similarity with Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino and its foregrounding of the central character’s lovers, while Watanabe’s status as a hibakusha, or survivor of the atomic attacks, brings to mind books such as Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain (a seminal work I *still* haven’t read) or Yūichi Seirai’s short-story collection Ground Zero, Nagasaki (Yoshie’s experiences in Hiroshima are eerily similar to a couple of the pieces here).

However, it’s the Fukushima angle that is perhaps most familiar.  Some time ago I posted on Hideo Furukawa’s Horses, Horses, In the End the Light Remains Pure, and the Watanabe side of the story is uncannily similar to Furukawa’s own journey into the broken north.  There’s our friend’s initial inertia, passively learning of how the disaster unfolded and what the consequences were, along with the sudden urge to go and see it all for himself and talk to those who survived, and stayed.  What ensues is a disturbing picture of what happens when nature and bad human ideas collide.

Quite apart from the main character’s personal history, though, Fracture takes a look at the wider world and the events that have occurred over the span of one human lifetime by connecting two very different nuclear disasters and exploring why this is still hapening.  One suggested key here is memory, as Yoshie muses during his time in the US:

The idea that seemed to predominate in the media, schools and families of the country that had welcomed him so warmly was a kind of self-justification, elevated to the point of military conviction: the attacks had been terrible but necessary.  In addition to ending the worst of wars, the bombs had dissolved forever the possibility of such a conflict ever being repeated.  This is what they told themselves, and this was what the majority of people there simply believed.  Which is why living among his former enemies, Watanbe reflects, taught him that memory is more than just the effort not to forget.  One should also remember the way in which one remembers. (p.159)

Having survived one bombing, and somehow avoided another, it’s unlikely that Yoshie will ever forget the war, especially as he still carries the scars.  The rest of the world, however, sees things differently, and everyone has very different opinions as to what the real effect of the bombs was.  In a way, his flight is a consequence of not wanting to be defined by where he happened to be on one particular day, even if that’s all others can see when he tells them his story.

It’s not just Watanabe’s survivor status, but also his very nature that leads others to label him, and Neuman takes a close look at the Japanese abroad, and how they are pigeon-holed, defined by both the war and the preconceptions foreigners have of them.  Most of Yoshie’s lovers are surprised by his character, and forced to reexamine their beliefs in the face of someone not living up to a stereotype.  Then again, Yoshie also learns more about himself each time he learns a new language, with a new tongue adding a new facet to his personality:

Rather than someone who spoke different languages, he felt that he was as many different people as the languages he spoke.  In French, he tended to be more oblique, more fastidious, and a little grouchy.  In English, he was surprised by his own conviction, the self-assurance with which he made what for him were unusually forceful assertions, his casually dry wit.  And what about Spanish, what was he like in Spanish?  Perhaps a little vociferous in his opinions.  More cheerful.  Less concerned with his image.  The Spanish language taught him the pleasure of speaking improperly. (p.179)

While the main focus is on Japanese, Neuman also uses his protagonist to explore the differences between other languages and cultures, and (unsurprisingly, perhaps) he saves for last the move requiring our Japanese world traveller to balance the tightrope between the Latin-American and European varieties of Spanish…

Fracture is a big novel, dense at times, with an impressive variety of styles and voices.  Although it ‘only’ runs to around 350 pages, the small type means it’s a longer book than you would suspect, and it certainly reads that way.  As always, it’s beautifully written, featuring the usual adept turn of phrase, with one notable feature being the frequent use of clever questioning when officials spout their version of the truth.  Here Watanabe (Neuman) pounces on small words, adverbs or time expressions, in official announcements, pointing out what is being said, or omitted, under the surface.  It’s always nice to see the same translators accompanying an author through their career, and Caistor and Garcia continue their excellent work on Neuman’s writing, bringing his dry humour and sharp eye into English.  There may not be the ever-present ribald, cheery humour of Traveller of the Century, but despite the pressure that naturally builds given the subject matter, we’re never too far away from a light touch to ease the tension.

Of course, as is the case with most ambitious novels of this nature, there are a couple of issues.  It’s hard to argue with the fragmented nature of the book, given that the title and cover proudly flaunt it, yet there are times where it feels like Fracture contains several different novels jostling for position.  The accounts of the four women (which I have shamefully neglected in this review), interesting as they are with their stories of sex and relationships, can seem longer than necessary, taking us away from Watanabe for a little too long, and readers with a good knowledge of either the literature or history of Japan may find that parts of the Watanabe side to the story are a little too basic, with reams of explanation of fairly commonplace facts.  It’s probably my issue rather than the writer’s, but there are times when the book appears to have momentarily morphed into essayistic journalism rather than fiction, dumping information on the reader, even if an attempt is made to integrate it into the story.

Nevertheless, these are minor, personal quibbles, and overall, Fracture is a powerful, absorbing work pulling together a number of ideas, never shying away from the idea that life is messy and that few of us go through it without picking up a few scars along the way.  This is certainly true for Watanabe, who has spent decades running away from something indefinable.  Now, at the end of his life, he finally decides that it’s time to face up to his demons as his country is once again visited by a nuclear tragedy.  This is a book with a lot to say, meaning the reader has a lot to absorb, probably more than is possible in one read.  At any rate, it’s one I certainly intend to take another look at, and one I’d definitely recommend 🙂

3 thoughts on “‘Fracture’ by Andrés Neuman (Review)

  1. When I first saw this book, one of my concerns was Pineislands risk – i.e. wouldn’t I rather read a book about a Japanese character written by a Japanese author? But didn’t seem that was the case from your review (and to be fair Pine Islands set an extreme low given it didn’t so much appropriate Japanese culture as trivialise it)?

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    1. Paul – No, and I had exactly the same thoughts! This one, as I mentioned, had a different issue of explaining a lot of Japanese content (around 3/11) that I didn’t need explaining. I’m sure others will need this info, though.

      Like

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