Novels are experiments: they offer writers an opportunity to play with time, to invent places and to imagine and inhabit lives other than their own. Fracture is by far the Argentinian writer Andrés Neuman’s most successful experiment. Neuman is a poet, short story writer, columnist and firm favourite of the late Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who proclaimed: “The literature of the 21st century will belong to Neuman.” A bold claim, and doubtless as much a curse as a blessing, but Neuman has been doing his best to live up to the hype. The recipient of multiple awards and prizes, and still only in his early 40s, he is now undoubtedly an international figure – with global ambitions.
Mr Watanabe is a figure condemned to live through history, observing and observed
Two of his previous novels have been translated into English. Traveller of the Century was a curious work, a love story taking place in an imaginary 19th-century Europe: ecstatic, rhapsodic historical fiction. Talking to Ourselves was a short, meditative book about death and dying, narrated in the voices of a husband and wife and their 10-year-old daughter: a brilliant act of ventriloquism. Fracture – the title is significant – combines his now trademark devices, style and ideas into a coherent whole.
The book tells the story of Yoshie Watanabe, a Japanese businessman who survived the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and who, after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, undertakes a journey to the devastated area of Fukushima in order to understand his – and his nation’s – history of survival and trauma.
The danger, of course, is that a character such as Mr Watanabe is merely a symbol, a device for an author to colonise territories and experiences not their own – the exotic Other. Neuman’s solution to this perennial problem is to have Mr Watanabe’s story told entirely by others: he is literally a fantasy figure, a man we get to know only through the reminiscences of his many lovers. Thus we hear about Yoshie in Paris in the 60s from a woman called Violet, then about his life in New York from another lover, Lorrie, and then from Mariela in Buenos Aires and from Carmen in Madrid. Mr Watanabe is a kind of sexy Zelig, or like WG Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz, a figure condemned to live through history, observing and observed.
The book is translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. From the evidence of this translation – and the previous novels, also translated by Caistor and García – it seems clear that Neuman writes prose like a poet. To take just the first sentence: “The afternoon appears calm, and yet time is waiting to pounce.” There is quite a lot of stylistic pouncing – the novel proceeds in continual leaps and bounds – and the book concludes with a sort of prose poem on the nature of water. “The water rips the sack of clouds, slits it with its blade, runs the thunder’s drumrolls and the lightning’s circuits, sews its stitches across the night sky, and dives headfirst into the sea like an acrobat from his trampoline.”
At times, perhaps, it all gets a little heavy-handed. Throughout the novel, an Argentinian journalist – a Neuman manqué? – is trying to get hold of Mr Watanabe to tell his story. That which might otherwise have been implicit is continually being made explicit: there is much harking on the significance and meaning of various fractures and scars. As Lorrie, the American, explains: “Like most of my friends, I have more than a few operations under my belt. An appendectomy. A stent. That valve in my lung […] Cervical cancer. Two abortions […] And that tumour in my breast, which changed how I perceive things, including pleasure.”
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.
• Fracture by Andres Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García, is published by Granta (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com