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Literature Letters from Latin America, May 1 2023

LEO BOIX reviews a novella by Peruvian writer August Higa Oshiro, a powerful book by young Colombian author Lorena Salazar Masso, and three poetry pamphlets, by Puerto Rican Sabrina Ramos Ruben, Venezuelan Eleonora Requena and Brazilian Tatiana Nascimento

AN ELDERLY university professor from Lima wanders through the streets of the Peruvian capital after being forced out of his lifelong job. His name is Katzuo Nakamatsu, and like the book's author, he is the son of Japanese immigrants in Peru.

The despondent literature professor quickly descends into an abyss of human consciousness and abandonment as he begins to explore, like a dejected flaneur, not only his deteriorating state of mind but the poor neighbourhoods of Lima and the desperate people that inhabit them at night.

Katzuo’s journey is one of self-discovery to make sense of his Japanese roots and search for the meaning of life, death, and desire. 

The Enlightenment of Katzuo Nakamatsu (Archipelago Books, £15), elegantly translated by Jennifer Shyhue, is full of arresting descriptions of a Latin American city and the many communities of outsiders that wander their streets. It is a novella about the ghosts of Japanese immigrants who came to Peru and were routinely disliked and cast aside. 

“The Japanese people who were so familiar to him, his own unruly and inexpressive parents, had fought ruthlessly, facing up to hatred and rancour born of their being foreigners who never settle in”, explains the narrator, who in time will reveal his name, Benito Gutti, a colleague of many years at the university.  

“They had died with a reputation for ferociousness and tenacity, and were reforged in their children, the niseis, like Katzuo Nakamutsa, mercilessly uprooted, who even at the end of their years, after senseless experiences and moral defeats, in old age, still asked themselves: why did our hides, our Japanese eyes, our bodily humours provoke such suspicion and rejection?”

Nakamatsu’s descent into madness and desperation as he walks the streets of Lima at night will end up confronting him with some of his demons; among them, a hidden homoerotic desire and a quest for pure beauty, achieving kensho, satori: “a vision of nature’s essence.”

This novel is an arresting tour de force by one of Peru’s most distinctive voices and a must-read.  

This Wound Full of Fish (Weidenfeld & Nicholson £14.99) is Colombian author Lorena Salazar Masso’s first novel. The story, beautifully translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott, begins on the flimsy dock of Quibdo, the capital of the department of Choco and one of the most important regions of the Colombian Pacific.

From there, a woman and her adopted son begin a long journey through the Atrato River in the heart of the Colombian jungle.

“We’re looking for a canoe that will take us both, plus the soft toy penguin he’s been carrying since we left home, to Bellavist,” explains the mother at the beginning of the book.

The adoptive mother, whose name we don’t know but whom we recognise as white, and a black child embark on a canoe with a small group of people travelling to different locations. The destination for the mother and son is the birthplace of the child and the home of his biological mother, Gina.

“The boy doesn’t really understand where we’re going — I told him it was just a boat trip — and I hide my sadness at returning to the place that was once my home, but where no trace of my childhood remains. Though traces of the boy’s childhood do,” adds the mother.
 
This is a remarkable book about the different meanings of motherhood, the never-ending violence in Colombia, and the many ways racism permeates society. 

There is so much music in Salazar Masso’s book, from alabaos, chigualos, and boleros to popular songs of Colombia. In one of the most arresting scenes a funeral is taking place. The author narrates the ceremony using the alabaos, the typical songs of the area, which are said to create a bridge between the dead and the living. The narrator’s memories converge with these songs echoing through the Colombian jungle.

The story effortlessly moves forward in this journey along the river, a constant flux that connects the maternal with many political struggles of Colombia. Salazar Masso has managed to create a work of fiction that is both compelling and painful. A book that will leave you breathless.

The New York-based Ugly Duckling Press, a nonprofit publisher of poetry, translation, experimental nonfiction, and performance texts, has published a trio of poetry pamphlets as part of its Senal series showcasing the work of three exciting Latin American authors: Puerto Rican Sabrina Ramos Ruben, Venezuelan Eleonora Requena and Brazilian Tatiana Nascimento. 

Song of the Absent Brook (UDP, £10), by Ramos Ruben and translated by S Yates Gibson, completely took me by surprise with the poet’s unassumingly quiet but potent voice: “Today I saw my son’s legs/in the blue shoes of a Syrian boy./I saw his hands in the minuscule tray nails/of a drowned child./I wish to be born without eyes to not ache,/to be blind to not weep”. A stunning collection. 

I was also impressed by the work of Requena Outside Texts (UDP, £10), translated by Guillermo Parra, a book with fragmentary qualities that is full of nuance, lyricism and beauty. 

Requena’s poems are “beautiful/monuments/made of words” as she sings: “Oh poet, don’t sing to the rose/or water it”. 

As Parra explains in the Translator’s Note, in Requena’s work, “the poem is continually happening, in sacred and mundane moments. These are poems meant to be unresolved”. 

In the case of Nascimento’s Lunduzinho (UDP, £10), a multilayered work of complex syntax, multilingualism and queerness translated by Natalia Affonso, the author uses experimentation to explore ideas about Brazil as a nation estate, as well as delve into its African ancestry and cosmovision. 

According to Affonso, Nascimento’s unorthodox use of language “is ultimately a refusal of colonial boundaries […] not limited to neoliberal identity positioning”. 

This is more evident in poems such as From the mineral, animal, vegetal kingdoms & the capital, where: “the concentration pastures are/vast fields for abstraction/of that tender furless skinless/eyeless backless slice… /styrofoamed & cling filmed on a climatised shelf/just like the FDA likes it./manufacturing death as food/is also fetishisation of produce.”

 

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