‘Intimacies’ by Katie Kitamura: Truth, Doubt, and Intimacy

Meryl Natchez

As soon as I finished Katie Kitamura’s newest book, Intimacies (238 pages; Riverhead), I immediately got copies of all her previous novels. Perhaps just quoting the first paragraph of this nuanced, intriguing novel will be enough for you to understand why:

It is never easy to move to a new country, but in truth I was happy to be away from New York. That city had become disorienting to me, after my father’s death and my mother’s sudden retreat to Singapore. For the first time, I understood how much my parents had anchored me to this place none of us were from. It was my father’s long illness that had kept me there, and with its unhappy resolution I was suddenly free to go. I applied for the position of staff interpreter at the Court on impulse, but once I had accepted the job and moved to the Hague, I realized that I had no intention of returning to New York, I no longer knew how to be at home there.

It’s an astonishing opening paragraph: the amount of information it provides, the introspective, somewhat distanced tone of the unnamed narrator that it immediately sets up and which persists through the novel; such compact, seemingly direct writing, with so much implied and left unsaid.

The title of the book is an accurate summary of its subject. The interaction between human beings, the complexity and necessity of intimacy, form the center around which the minimal plot spins. Its exposition engages as thoroughly as an action-packed thriller—more thoroughly, perhaps, as its explication—trust, doubt, multiple interpretations of actions and word—may be more interesting than murder and mayhem.

Briefly, the story line around which the prose weaves its net is a youngish, rather passive, and rootless woman who comes to The Hague as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court on a one-year contract. She meets and becomes involved with a man who seems entirely open and even-keeled. She learns he is separated from his wife, who has gone to Lisbon with their two teenaged children. The narrator remains attached to him, but the situation is tenuous. At work, she is required to interpret for a dictator from an unnamed African country, as well as for witnesses who have experienced the horrors of which he is accused. Her lover leaves to try to resolve things with his wife, during which time he drops out of contact but eventually returns. Other troubling and confusing events occur. The narrator must make decisions about her work and relationships.

That may seem very little for a novel, but every interaction is rich with ambiguity and introspection. For the course of Intimacies, you live in the perspective of the narrator, as established from that first paragraph. You experience every scene through her observant and questioning gaze. You become her so thoroughly that at the end of the book it’s a shock that you never learn her name.

Always get the last word.

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It’s a tour de force, and I found myself going back through certain passages because I had read so quickly, so urgently, that I wanted to reread and re-experience certain incidents. Early in the novel, there is a seemingly simple passage about seeing workers with a sort of elephantine vacuum picking cigarette butts from the cracks in the cobblestone street. Even this mundane incident causes the narrator to reflect on the nature of The Hague:

The three men were almost certainly immigrants, possibly Turkish or Surinamese. Meanwhile, their labor was necessitated by the heritage aesthetic of the city, not to mention the carelessness of a wealthy population that dropped the cigarette butts onto the pavement without a thought, when the designated receptacle was only a few feet away…one example of how the city’s veneer of  civility was constantly giving way…

This peeling back of veneer is especially present in the scenes where the narrator relates her work as an interpreter.

The first time you listened to an interpreter speaking, that voice might sound cold and precise, but the longer you listened, the more variation you would hear. If a joke was made, it was the interpreter’s job to communicate the humor or attempt a humor; similarly, when something was said ironically it was important to indicate that the words were not to be taken at face value. Linguistic accuracy was not enough. Interpretation was a matter of great subtlety, a word with many contexts…

This complexity, of course, extends into the narrator’s relationships—trust, doubt, layers of meaning haunt even a simple dinner party where the narrator introduces her friend, Jana, and her lover, Adriaan:

The entire exercise had an air of futility and falseness. Adriaan must have been perfectly aware of the fact that Jana knew everything not only about his job and where he lived, but also about his marriage to Gaby and its unresolved state. Nor could the skillful façade of her conversation conceal the fact that Jana also knew that Adriaan knew that she knew, disavowed knowledge reverberated through the room. And yet our behavior did not seem especially strange, people behave with such conscious and unconscious dishonesty all the time.

Most intense, however, are the passages in which the narrator must translate both for the African dictator, and at other times, for witnesses of the genocide for which he has been indicted.

This was not aided by the fact that interpretation can be profoundly disorienting, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain the utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself, that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses its meaning. This was happening to me now, in the conference room. I was absorbed by the task at hand…And yet—as I stared down at the pad of paper in front of me, covered in shorthand—something did seep out. I saw the words I had been saying for nearly twenty minutes now, cross-border raid, mass grave, armed youth.

The weight of faithful translation for a mass murderer wears on the narrator, especially as her presence (he has requested her specifically) “seems to calm him.” She sees the dictator marshal his energies to appear strong and erect in the court, and also sees him slumped and exhausted off stage. She interprets from a glass booth in court, but sits next to him, almost whispering into his ear in conference with his lawyers. “The depersonalized nature of the task..sat alongside the strange intimacy of the encounter, the entire thing was a paradox, impossible to reconcile.” This is exacerbated by the fact that the lead defense attorney has a personal animosity toward the narrator and plays the role of an Iago in her relationship with Adriaan.

The conflicting emotions triggered by her role are heightened as she then must translate for a young woman, a victim of the dictator’s persecution, who speaks in Dyula, which is translated into French, which the narrator must translate into English for the court.

As I worked, I was obliged to focus on the voice of the interpreter in the opposite booth, which was measured and precise and occluded much of the sound of the young woman’s speech. And yet her voice came through with remarkable clarity in the gaps between interpretation, the syllables distinct, the timbre unmistakable, so that I still had the sense that I was speaking for her, despite the layers of language between us.

This sequence, in which the woman recounts how her brothers and father were shot in cold blood, their possessions stolen, the lunch on the table eaten by the soldiers, is unique in that the narrator inserts herself into every description instead of just providing the translation—the narration is peppered with “I pause, I continued, I said.” The narrator is clearly speaking as the victim in the sequence.

After this, the narrator can no longer look at her work dispassionately. She sees her colleagues differently, “marked by alarming fissures, levels of dissociation” that seem unsustainable to her.

At this moment, she is offered an extension to her contract and the drama of the novel heightens. Decisions must be made, but all around is confusion and distraction. The narrator begins to question the value of the Court itself, which is under pressure for its focus on Third World dictators as opposed the human rights violations in wealthier countries.

Adriaan is absent and uncommunicative, and the narrator has a brief confrontation with his wife. She witnesses a vulgar and voluptuous assignation between a married man she knows and “a carnal prospect of no small worth” that make her question marriage and its bonds.

The narrator must examine her rootlessness, her profession, her stay in this city, intimacy itself. She has a moving conversation with her absent mother, the only time they communicate in the novel.

In Kitamura’s novel A Separation (2017) she explores some of the same themes with the same control. In the final pages of that book, the narrator seems to set the premise for Intimacies, talking about the murder of her estranged husband: “But we do know, if we dare to imagine, that those final moments will have been intimate, even if the precise nature of that intimacy diverges from what we usually think of when we hear and use the word…” Gone to the Forest (2012) and The Longshot (2009) are very different in subject matter, but at the heart of both of these dramatic, well-written, and disturbing books is the question of relationships—father and son in the former, trainer and fighter in the latter. Both also highlight the sense of otherness and belonging, compassion and exploitation, all recurring themes for Kitamura.

Kitamura has received recognition for her work; most recently, Intimacies was long listed for the National Book Award. Her control of characters, events, and emotions is extraordinary, the explication at once spare and vivid, and the questions it explores profound. Lucky you if you get to read her for the first time.

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