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Augusto Higa Oshiro: La iluminación de Katzuo Nakamatsu (The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu)

Katzuo Nakamatsu is a fifty-eight year old Peruvian, of Japanese origin. He works as a university professor, teaching literature. In all of this, he is like his creator. Katzuo is a widower – his wife, Keiko, died twenty-five years previously. They had no children. It is not clear what their relationship was like, though he later says that he never loved anybody and no-one ever loved him. However, he admits that she opened her eyes and was more versatile than he, while he closed his eyes and and remained ashamed of his origins. After her death, he saw his fellow nisei much less. At the beginning of the book, he is enjoying the beauty of a garden, when he is suddenly struck with a feeling of ennui and world-weariness. This attack is so acute that he has difficulty in breathing. He starts to fear death. He walks, without knowing where he is going. During this walk, we learn a bit about him.

He is a nisei and, as a result, very much feels that he is a foreigner in the country where he was born and brought up. He feels that he has never been close to anyone, because of his origins. While his parents seemed to be immune to attacks on them for their being Japanese, he is not and very much feels it. As he is getting older, he feels that he is near death but feels that, as someone of Japanese origin, he can accept this. Indeed, he imagines the various ways he might die – from heart attack to suicide and even to being murdered. He gradually calms down and is able to talk to the woman in his local café.

However, he is still in a state of what we would called depression. A man is murdered, resisting muggers just outside the shop where he is and he sees the body on the ground. He thinks about suicide and asks a friend what is the best way to kill himself. With a shot from a Beretta 21 straight into the temple, says his friend, who then proceeds to lend him a gun. He also thinks about Japan and remembers the Japan before the barbarians came that his father had told him about. His father had immigrated to Peru from Japan in 1918, a poor man. His father had been a close friend of Etsuko Unten, a haughty Japanese man who had immigrated to Peru at about the same time, and he had remained true to his Japanese values, far more than other Japanese immigrants, continuing to wear traditional Japanese clothes. He had helped the Japanese community very much during the war when they had been persecuted and some of them shipped off to concentration camps in Texas. He had eventually committed suicide in the traditional Japanese way, though we learn much more about this later in the book.

Katzuo has two models in his life. Etsuko Unten is one and the other is the Peruvian poet Martín Adán. He is actually writing a novel about Unten. Katzuo loves Adán’s poetry but Adán, like Unten and Katzuo, was something of a flawed character. Katzuo had once seen him in the streets of Lima, drunk. He later ended up in an asylum, brought on, at least in part, by his alcoholism. These two are not exactly ideal role models. Things start to get worse for him when he is suddenly told that, because of his age, he has to retire. He is devastated. Staying at home, or going for long walks, often following routes taken by Unten and Adán, are all that seem to occupy him. He barely has any friends and has little contact with his siblings. He imagines that he is being followed and, at home, he hears loud bird noises, which his neighbours do not hear. Only towards the end, do we learn that not only has he had a breakdown and been admitted to an asylum, but that this account is actually written by his former colleague Benito Gutti. Indeed, Katzuo seems to enter into a state of Kenshō, a state of initial insight (and, hence, the title of the book). Before finally breaking down, he cries Beauty exists.

Higa writes this book very well, describing Katzuo gradual descent into illumination, Kenshō or madness, call it what you will. It is clear, despite his age, that Katzuo has never come to terms with his Japanese origins. Moreover, unlike some immigrants, he does not stay fully immersed in his own, original culture. As a result, he does not know where he belongs. How much this reflects the life of Higo himself is not clear but his portrayal of Katzuo’s unsuccessful struggle to come to terms with his life as a Peruvian of Japanese origin is first-class. Neither this nor any other of Higo’s work has been translated into English and this book is even very difficult to obtain in Spanish.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by San Marcos
First English translation in 2023 by Archipelago
Translated by Jennifer Shyue