The Cost of Belonging: Augusto Higa Oshiro’s The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu

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In the opening sentences of The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu (Archipelago Books), a novella by the Japanese Peruvian writer Augusto Higa Oshiro, the eponymous protagonist, standing on a pebbled path, has a vision. He glimpses a flowering sakura tree that sends him into “a private joy” and “a secret spirituality.” Everything in the park around him lifts his senses—children at play, people chatting on benches, the budding flora—at least momentarily, until he passes into “a strange moment” passes and begins to feel “burdened” by “the weight of consciousness.” In an instant, this tranquil scene disappears, leaving only the sakura tree, which exudes “a death drive, a vicious feeling, like the sakura were transmitting extinction.” Terrified, Katzuo flees the park.

This is the first instance of Katzuo Nakamatsu’s so-called enlightenment, as bitter and complicated for him as an existential  expanding beyond his lost job and ominous vision and building to a heart that Oshiro reveals as one peels layers from an artichoke. As a Japanese Peruvian person living in Lima, he is ethnically nisei, Japanese (primarily Okinawans) who went to work in Peru as laborers at the beginning of the twentieth century, his father among them. But Katzuo’s own laborers are academic, at least initially. When we meet him, he is a fifty-eight-year-old professor working an assortment of uncompleted literary projects.

Still, the unshakeable feeling with the sakura soon becomes premonitory, serving a similar function as Alice’s white rabbit or Proust’s madeleine. Those rosy, delicate flowers send him on deep rumination about his personal past and those of his fellow nisei. But Oshiro adds a twist: Katzuo’s questionable mental health, an affliction highlighted by the third person narration written in Bernhardian-like tumbling, rhythmic sentences deftly translation by Jennifer Shyue. There are several episodes when Katzuo nearly loses himself to his own darkness. In one, Katzup enters a more dangerous part of the city of Lima, where the book is set, where he witnesses a robbery in which one of the assailants is gunned down. Hovering over the dead man’s body he becomes apathetic:

Captivated by the impassive flesh, perhaps he felt moved, it’s also possible he stayed surely, distant, then he retraced his steps, shrugged his shoulders, crossed through the throng of people, feeling no pity, seeing no recourse, at the end of the day, the boy wasn’t one of his dead or in his likeness, nor the extension of his body, nor of his blood, his eyes, his race.

Numbed by the experience, he goes to the house of an old friend, one who lives off remittances from Japan and, under the guise of self-protection, asks to borrow his pistol. But it’s his own right temple that Katzuo imagines will be his target.  The make of the gun is Star, an astronomical object, is for Katzuo auspicious. For the reader, it is an heinous act that Katzuo could believably execute at any time.

Because the novel is written with occasional breaks in time rather than one a continuous narrative, it develops as a series of tension-building events. After a brief leave of absence, Katzuo returns to the university where he has worked for many years only to discover that he is being forced into retirement. Unable to cope with his dismissal, Katsuo begins to wander the city where his mental health further deteriorates.  He pities himself over the lack of connection he feels to others. Lost in the crowd of Lima’s swanky Jesús María district, Katzuo stops to wonder: “why had he never loved, and why had nobody ever loved him?” Later, in an attempt to correct this, he makes a pilgrimage to his butsudan, his family alter, were we learn, mere pages later, that he is a widower, after his wife Keiko died from cancer at the age of thirty-nine. His mother rests there as well.

His father, however, is buried elsewhere. We glimpse of  the roots of Katzuo’s deep resentment when he describes his father as a “belligerent, authoritarian old man” who arrived in the first wave of nisei. Decades later, Katsuo is still searching for the reward of his father’s exodus. Toward the second half of the book, the story focuses greater attention on the history of Japanese immigrants to Peru. Nakamatsu’s ruminations morph into an interrogation, both of his fellow nisei people as well as the hostile society in which they find themselves.

When Nakamatsu begins hearing the voices of his ancestors, which sound like “a brood of flies,” emanating from a grove of ceibos—a tree with special significance in several South American countries—he falls deeper into madness, becoming obsessed with a friend of his father’s that supported the Japanese during the War and never let his immigration dampen his pride. The voices of his forbears—whether heard by Nakamatsu the madman or Nakamatsu the saint, we cannot be sure—do not offer advice or encouragement, as they might in more conciliatory books. Instead, they lodge complaints and issue warnings. “We are unwanted,” his ancestors tell him.

Wandering aimlessly through the streets of Lima, patronizing churches and cemeteries, then cantinas and brothels, Katzuo’s story might be seen as the nightmarish reality begot by the poor immigrant’s dream. Notably, one of his favorite avenues to meander is 28 de Julio, named for the day Peru won its independence from Spain. References to the protagonist’s (and by extension the author’s) dueling identities course through the text, whether through the scent of lúcuma fruit fumes or his craving for yushime, an Okinawan soup. In this vortex of language and culture, the translator’s task is all the more essential and Jennifer Shyue’s translation from Spanish is both precise and poetic. In addition to the music of the prose, Shyue does justice to the multiple vernacular at play, bringing two unlike cultures into the portrait of a single man.

In keeping with the author’s equivocality, the reader is left to wonder how much of Nakamatsu’s present dilemma is attributable to his inherited sense of alienation as a nisei or to bad circumstances and a depressive temperament. The two concerns move forward in step-like narration, one foot and then the other, peaking at an eventual breakdown from which not even his friends can save him. He dons a “gray hat, sorry raincoat, and uncompromising cane” and strolls around unashamed of his outdated garments. At one point, he sits down and points the pistol to his head but does not pull the trigger. He begins instead to look for something meaningful and frequent locales of homosexual prostitutes, watching them as he drinks weak coffee. Filled with desire, Katzuo comes up on a boy and disrobes to be naked in his arms, shouting “Beauty does exist!” By the following chapter, he has been sent to a mental facility.

By this point, a narrator reveals himself to the reader in the first person (perhaps he is Oshiro himself) and the book is revealed to be a report. In doing so, it loses a bit of its cocked-gun momentum established earlier in the text, but it is an interesting detour that undresses conventional expectations. But whether the author is honoring or quietly mocking this sense of a larger purpose remains open to interpretation. Oshiro seems uninterested in a black-and-white depiction of the immigrant’s struggle to belong. The novella’s shades of gray are as numerous as the anonymous faces he comes across in the street. When Katzuo visits the home of a sibling, one in a series of ritual farewells he carries out as he contemplates suicide or self-destruction, we encounter characters who wear their heritage far more lightly than he does.

Later chapters offer a reprieve to the novella’s intense introspection. Nakamatsu begins to find some semblance of peace at the facility, helped along by his friends and a fellow nisei woman. It is a far different fate than his father’s jingoistic friend who we learn spent the rest of his days sitting at a port waiting to be picked up by a Japanese boat that would never come. Oshiro embraces the paradoxes characteristic of spiritual works with literary and philosophical finesse, and while The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu regards the impulse to retreat when the world’s indifference or outright hostility promises to destroy one’s essence, it also faces such a world with illuminating bravery.

As Shyue discusses in her informative afterword, Oshiro’s work is understood to have two distinct periods. His early writings depicted the lives of working-class people from neighborhoods like his own that weren’t necessarily nisei. Oshiro then belonged to a group of writers known as Grupo Narración, who sought to represent previously overlooked segments of Peruvian society. But a stint in a factory in Japan altered Oshiro’s preoccupations, and he returned disoriented by the experience. The work that followed focused on the immigrant experience and history of Japanese Peruvians. Belonging to the later period, this book seems like the product of a mind nowhere close to done wrestling with questions of belonging. Oshiro passed away in April of this year, just a month prior to this publication, to my knowledge, his first in English. It is haunting to read the novella in light of this news. Though his main character is swept up in the death drive, Oshiro’s language makes Katzuo’s every weary breath feel anxiously, pulsatingly alive.




Kassia Oset is a writer and co-producer of Unburied Books: a podcast reading its way through the NYRB Classics and a series that resurrects fiction and nonfiction works worth remembering. More from this author →