Latin America is home to a large East Asian diaspora, the result of much the same forces that created the not dissimilar diaspora in North America; the authors arising in that other diaspora, however, write in Spanish (and perhaps Portuguese, depending on how one defines things) rather than English. Very few of these works end up in English. The arrival of The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu by Augusto Higa Oshiro in an inspired translation by Jennifer Shyue, is a glimpse into a world and literary tradition that English readers rarely get to experience.
Higa (who sadly passed away in April, just before publication of this, the first English translation of one of his novels) was of Okinawan heritage and grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Peruvian capital of Lima, a background reflected in his fiction.
The story is a relatively simple one: Katzuo Nakamatsu is suddenly and unexpectedly forced out of his job as a professor and finds himself completely unmoored. He starts to wander the town, reciting the poetry of the (very real) Martín Adán, revisiting his past, both places and people, in particular his wife Keiko, with whose death he lost connection with much of the Japanese side of his community and identity. He reinvents himAs he unravels, Katzuo makes some progress toward finding himself again.
This is a short book, more novella than novel, longer on atmosphere, description and language than plot. Higa traverses many themes—aging, identity (ethnic and otherwise), spirituality, responsibility (social and personal), social relations (of both ethnicity and class), the perspectives of history (national and personal), especially that of the experiences of Japanese in Peru during WW2—all in the person of a much-diminished man:
In many ways, he, Katzuo, was nothing more than a rickety piece of furniture, spent, trembling, frightened by voices, presences, movements, boiling, dreaming of images that return, that pass by, totally shrunken, inert, body unmoving, sitting by any old stand, in any filthy old restaurant, elbows on the table, ankles crossed, forehead pacified, glasses having fallen off his nose, his stubble scruffy, grimy.
Although described as “reminiscent of Kurasawa’s film Ikiru”, readers familiar at all with fiction from Spanish America may find different touchstones with, of course, Asian elements integrated into otherwise Latin American images:
… the only thing in the air now was the sakura tree, its branches and its luminous flowers … He waited a moment, a sensible length of time, before opening his eyes, and this time he could make out, real and tangible, a crew of ekeko faces, marching through the grass under the sakuras, colorful chullos on their heads and leather pouches at their backs.
Shyue has managed to keep an impressive amount of the tone and voice—the feel—of the original in her translation. Peru is very much in the Americas: readers who thought they had a grasp of the range and breadth of Asian-American fiction, might just here find some enlightenment of their own.