Book Review - Fracture

Kintsugi is a Japanese art form that celebrates imperfection. Artisans repair and renew broken ceramics using a gold lacquer to accentuate the breaks. Or, as AndrĂ©s Neuman suggests in his latest novel, kintsugi is: “The art of mending cracks without secret. Of repairing while exposing the point of fracture.”  

Fracture begins in Japan during the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami which devastated the nuclear reactor at Fukushima. Yoshie Watanabe, a retired business executive, lives alone. News of the catastrophe takes him back to the end of World War II. As a boy, Yoshie miraculously survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, but has spent his entire life trying to escape his memories of the horror and shame at his double hibakusha status. Yoshie lost his closest family and was brought up by his aunt and uncle. As soon as possible, he moves abroad to study economics in Paris.

We follow Yoshie on an epic journey through Paris, New York, Buenos Aires and Madrid at pivotal moments in their history, told from the perspectives of the four different women he encounters. A prolific writer, Neuman - Argentine-born, now based in Granada - delights in language and linguistic ambivalence. In Fracture, he explores the fragmented nature of memory, emotional scars, a city’s wounds after a disaster and the cracks in a relationship caused by cultural difference. Neuman draws profound parallels between collective traumas – Japan’s bombing, Vietnam in 1968, Argentina’s ‘disappeared’, Chernobyl and the 2004 Madrid train attacks. Recalling Japan’s enforced silence in the war’s aftermath, Yoshie’s Argentinian girlfriend Mariela ponders: “Maybe the most brutal thing is not that you were bombed. Most brutal of all is that they don’t even allow you to tell people that you’ve been bombed. During the dictatorship here they would kill one of your children and you couldn’t tell anyone.”  

Only in old age does Yoshie realise the damage of having failed to confront his trauma, of having “averted his gaze”, and decides to travel to Fukushima’s disaster site. Neuman depicts his journey with poignant lyricism: “Spring cushions Route 45 like a parenthesis. The asphalt is one dark sentence; the digression of flowers does its best to change the subject.”  Striving to unite his “scattered memories” Yoshie visits a town on the periphery of the Fukushima plant’s danger zone: “Everything looks as unscathed as it does deserted. Streets without cars. Houses without inhabitants. Shops without customers. Schools without students. This is the without town, he thinks. There’s no destruction: just subtraction.” 

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.

Originally published by The Observer