This exquisite novel charts many different intimacies, both physical and metaphorical – intimacies of confidences and private rituals, of eating and touching, and of the public gaze and its counterpoint, the personal realm. Among its most vivid are the intimacies imparted through the work of an interpreter, the nuances of language conveying meaning beyond mere words.
A woman is employed in the International Criminal Court in The Hague as an interpreter, arriving from New York on a one-year contract. She is untethered from both family and place, without acrimony but with loss. Kitamura fills her in slowly, our haziness about who she is reflecting her own uncertainty about her future. Her first languages are English and Japanese, but we learn little more about her parents beyond that they were the reason she was in the United States. She grieves her father, who has recently died; her mother has moved to Singapore (a place which seems to hold no attachment for her). Once, when she is addressed in Mandarin, an unfamiliar language, she says, ‘I want to be in a place that feels like home. Where that was, I did not know.’
The novel turns when she takes on the work of a colleague interpreting in the trial of a former president of an African nation. She gradually realises that her work, alone in the court, is without judgement – a neutrality she sees become a salve for the former president, whose heinous acts she is required to voice again and again.
Contradictions abound. The interpreter removes herself as an individual, becoming a vessel for another’s words; yet to interpret is to be in another’s head, to become that person temporarily.
The depersonalized nature of the task – I was only an instrument, and during the hours that I was there, I was almost never spoken to directly, in fact the only person who bothered to address me at all was the former president – sat alongside the strange intimacy of the encounter, the entire thing was a paradox, impossible to reconcile.
Kitamura plays constantly with our tendency for assumption, revealing shifting truths. In a surreal scene when her lover, Adriaan, meets her friend Jana for the first time, the ground shifts and she is beset by what is known and unknown, what is expected behaviour, what is normal, what is real. She does not know who to trust. ‘The entire exercise had an air of futility and falseness.’ Our ability to be led astray by first impressions runs throughout the novel.
Her assumptions about a man she meets at a party early on are shaken when he reappears in a different role. Her relationship with Adriaan, and his with his wife, are rife with hidden meaning. It is through Kees, a man she has just met, that she learns more. She wonders, when does a false impression veer into deception? What do we know of anyone at all? When she is required to attend a detention centre in the middle of the night to interpret for an apprehended jihadist, she assumes that the taxi driver must think she is a prostitute for one of the imprisoned men. When she passes the building later, she notes how it is transformed by daylight.
Kitamura examines where power is held and how it is wielded, not least in the cognitive dissonance of Western democracy, with all its colonial past, prosecuting African war criminals. This is represented in the personal realm by men dominating and harassing women. In a meeting in the defence counsel’s office, the tension is unbearable but she cannot leave:
What actually took place was that I remained in my seat, that I interpreted for the former president, that I remained there, in that room with those men, until they no longer wanted me.
It is Adriaan’s status which feeds his belief that he can have her, even while virtually abandoning her to pursue his wife. In the world of the court and environs, security cameras are a constant presence and Kitamura shows how privacy, and its lack, is another intimacy.
The most extraordinary feat Kitamura pulls off is to give us the narrator’s innermost thoughts over the course of the novel, letting us inside her fear and doubt and powerlessness, watching as she exercises or withholds her agency, yet never once disclosing her name. Written entirely from her point of view in the first person, this clever device reminds us that we can know someone intimately yet not know them at all, and Kitamaura deploys it so perfectly that it is only in reflection, after we have read the last page, that we realise it at all.
Intimacies is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; its long sentences and multiple layers demand close attention and reward an immediate rereading.
Katie Kitamura Intimacies Vintage 2021 PB 240pp $22.99
First published in Newtown Review of Books: https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/katie-kitamura-intimacies-reviewed-by-jessica-stewart/