TOKYO, JAPAN - MARCH 11: People look at the smoke rising over the skyline after the earthquake on March 11, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan. A magnitude 8.9 strong earthquake hit the northeast coast of Japan causing Tsunami alerts throughout countries bordering the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by XINHUA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Smoke seen from Tokyo after the March 2011 earthquake hit north-eastern Japan © Xinhua/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

How should we think about a life? This is the central question of Fracture, a structurally ingenious novel that depicts its central character not through linear progression but more as an assemblage of cracked pieces.

The metaphor that Andrés Neuman, its Spanish-Argentine author, employs to describe the life of his protagonist Yoshie Watanabe is that of kintsugi. Kintsugi is the Japanese technique of mending pottery or glass by cementing the shards with powdered gold, an art form that accentuates an object’s traumas. In Japan, a broken bowl or vase thus mended is often more valuable than one that has survived intact.

So it is — or so we wish to believe — with Watanabe, a retired Japanese electronics executive. His life is marked by the mental and physical scars he has carried since childhood when, on a visit to Hiroshima with his father, he was present for the nuclear bombing of that city. His father died on that day, his mother and sisters three days later when their home town, Nagasaki, was also bombed after cloud cover diverted the US bomber from its intended target of Kokura. Thus, the accidents of Watanabe’s life begin.

We first encounter him decades later as a nondescript, somewhat irritable retiree with a bad back, buying a subway ticket in Tokyo. The year is 2011, moments before the March 11 earthquake. That undersea eruption was to trigger a monstrous tsunami that erased many coastal towns in northern Japan and, at Fukushima, set off the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The physical ruptures in the book — an earthquake, an atomic bomb, a terrorist attack, a nuclear meltdown — are the public scars. For Watanabe, it is almost as though, through the physical cracking induced by the earthquake, the symbolic fissures of his life are revealed.

Watanabe himself tells us little about his life. That task is left to four women who loved him during different chapters of his life as he moved jobs from Paris to New York, then to Buenos Aires and lastly to Madrid. Only finally does he return — alone — to Japan.

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.

“Rather than someone who spoke different languages, he felt that he was as many different people as the languages he spoke,” writes Neuman, himself the son of a mother of French and Spanish origin and a father of German-Jewish descent. Living in the cracks between cultures, never able to commit to one version of himself, Watanabe explains: “I’m partly from many parts.”

Words have a fragile grasp over meaning. At one point Watanabe passes a park called, in Japanese, Yo no mori, where mori means forest. Confused, he reads it in Spanish where the meaning is: “I didn’t die.” This is more than just wordplay. It speaks to Neuman’s underlying theme of a tectonic reality in which meaning slips and in which language both elucidates and limits.

In Japanese, Watanabe reflects, there is no subdivision of the past into perfect and pluperfect, nor any grammatical gearshift between present and future. “He used to tell me that western grammar had upset his concept of time and of things,” says the interpreter he falls in love with in Buenos Aires. Time and space — as we are discovering in this period of Zoomed-in faces from multiple continents — are flexible concepts.

It is even hard, Watanabe thinks, to pin down the meaning of something as apparently indisputable as an airport. That, too, turns out to have overlapping realities and “superimposed places. The state, the customs, the law, the police, fear, business, farewells, greetings.”

In Tokyo, Watanabe is a grumpy old man. He lives alone and surfs porn via webcams that allow him, conference-call style, to drop in to different people’s sex lives. Yet that is not all he is. He is also a handsome young student in Paris with a sharp sense of humour, a successful businessman, a devoted nephew, a polyglot, a father figure to the son of his Argentine lover and a survivor of two atomic blasts.

Throughout, in this enjoyable and strangely tender book, Neuman asks us to look beyond the present. Thus, the scar on a woman’s breast is not a disfigurement but a mark of her struggle with cancer. An older woman is more beautiful than a younger one, although many fail to see it. Someone quotes a Leonard Cohen song. “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” As a shopkeeper comments of the golden repair work on a broken bowl: “What lovely cracks.”

Fracture, by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Granta, RRP£14.99, 368 pages

David Pilling is the FT’s former Tokyo bureau chief and the author of ‘Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival’

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