In Fracture, Spanish-Argentine writer Andrés Neuman manages to merge disaster, memory, and distance into a single cohesive map. Tracing the flow of time, tragedies both individual and global, and our memories of what occurred, Neuman leads us into the lives and loves of his characters, filling in the gaps between one character’s memories with another’s. Like the functional and decorative art of kintsugi—mending a shattered piece of pottery with gold or silver, highlighting the cracks—that fascinates his protagonist Yoshie, Neuman knows that the ways in which we’re broken not only form an essential fabric of our being, but often remake us in entirely new ways.
The novel opens with disaster, as Yoshie Watanabe in Tokyo experiences the earthquake that would trigger the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster in 2011. Having survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, Watanabe knows intimately the darkest side of nuclear power and bureaucracy. However, he finds himself drawn to the area, and goes to survey it for himself under the guise of being a journalist.
The novel is broken into 11 pieces, alternating between Yoshie’s perspective and the perspectives of romantic partners from his past. As a boy during WWII, Nagasaki-native Yoshi takes a business trip with his father to Hiroshima, one all readers know is fated for disaster beyond comprehension. Though Yoshie managed to survive the Hiroshima bombing, his father and the rest of his immediate family back home in Nagasaki were killed. He goes to live with his aunt and uncle in Tokyo, before leaving Japan altogether to study abroad in Paris. There, he falls in love with the city, with the language, and with a woman named Violet. After graduating college, Yoshie goes on to work for a Japanese electronics firm that had recently expanded into the global market with a Parisian office. Though his relationship with Violet is going well, he takes a promotion in New York City, effectively ending the relationship.
Most of the sections told from Yoshi’s perspective are during the Fukushima disaster of 2011, whereas his life in Paris is told by Violet as she is interviewed by an Argentine journalist. Much like Neuman himself, this journalist sees Yoshie as the throughline of nuclear disaster bookended by Hiroshima and Fukushima, and sets out to chronicle Yoshie’s life through his partners. We move through each stage in Yoshie’s life, and each of his subsequent moves, through the perspective of his romantic partners. Each partner starts her story as Yoshie enters her life, and ends when he moves.
Despite these relationships seeming strong, they all come apart in various ways. We move with Yoshie to New York City to hear from Lorrie, to Buenos Aires with Mariela, and to Madrid with Carmen. Each section reveals a little more about not only Yoshie as he ages, experiences more, and shifts both home and tongue, but also about the different women he loves and who love him throughout his life. While there are certain parallels as you might imagine, each section from a partner’s perspective feels fresh, and reflects her unique ideology, culture, and language, even after having been translated into English.
The translation from Nick Caistor and Lorenza García is to be applauded. It’s hard to imagine a more daunting task as a translator: Fracture combines not only a globe-trotting vocabulary, but also examines the differences between grammar structures across Japanese, French, English and Spanish. Often, Yoshie’s zeal for learning languages plays center stage. He marvels to his partners about how each language’s construction reveals something of the essential nature of the people that speak it. Yoshie notes how he sounds and comes across differently in each language. Indeed, even his personality and tone seem to change based on the language, though culture and age could be equally responsible.
Occasionally, native words are peppered into the text to reflect the language being spoken. I have long found this to be a somewhat arduous choice; it comes across more as cloying than worldly, to me. However, these occurrences are rare and infrequent enough to be minimally distracting.
The true difficulty with the novel comes with the manner of the construction. By relying heavily on the direct accounts of those who knew Yoshie most intimately rather than on his own perspective, much of the action is deflated. Even as the novel works to show the true human cost of the disasters that are often condensed to statistics, it’s a point illustrated from a cautious distance. The narration from his partners seems reliable enough, though colored by their personalities and individual experiences—the problem is the choice of narration itself. There’s more impact, more emotion in feeling like you’re at an event than being told about it. Neuman is aware of this. The firsthand accounts Yoshie gives of both the earthquake and the Hiroshima bombing are easily the most powerful sections in the book. There’s an interesting meta-narrative at play concerning the nature of being “told” a story and who is doing the telling, but this meta-narrative is not clever enough to justify the narration.
In Fracture, Neuman sets out to show the loss of global disasters through the frame of the individual. I can’t help but consider the novel in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that is affecting millions around the globe. That’s the thing about disasters, about tragedy: it feels impossible until it’s happening to you. Now, the disaster is everywhere; though not everyone is affected equally. Living through this disaster as it unfolds only proves how accurate Fracture is.
By Andrés Neuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published May 5, 2020