"Intimacies," Katie Kitamura's latest novel, set in The Hague, is a study of the act of interpretation, both in a professional capacity — the narrator works for the Court — and in personal life. The assiduous nature of interpretation — "a matter of great subtlety," the narrator says — is reflected in the style of the prose: sparsity without dullness, clarity without overstatement.
Kitamura is particularly skilled at finding moments in her narrator's social life — at a small dinner party, or in a museum gallery — when the role of interpreter is foisted upon her unwillingly; when, by virtue of her presence, she serves as the filter through which other people speak.
Accustomed to grasping the nuances of multiple languages, the narrator is often burdened by her own capacity to perceive. Arriving late to a dinner at her friend Jana's apartment, the narrator notices the bond that has formed in her absence between Jana, the host, and the narrator's own lover, Adriaan. As Jana asks Adriaan polite, perfunctory questions — questions to which it is clear she already has the answers — the narrator thinks, "The entire exercise had an air of futility and falseness," a statement that applies to innumerable social niceties. Moments later, Jana delves into the opposite end of the spectrum, describing a mugging in her neighborhood.
Kitamura uses this mugging to haunt the narrator, whose work requires the frequent description of atrocities. Absorbed by her labor, the narrator is often able to break free of the words' meaning, even as she is fully engaged in the role of interpreter. "None of us are able to really see the world we are living in," she thinks. "It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed. … we live in a state of I know but I do not know."
This state — the knowing but not knowing — becomes increasingly difficult for the narrator after Adriaan leaves for Lisbon to see his estranged wife, Gaby, and their children. Adriaan claims that he's going to ask for a divorce, but Kees — a former lover of Gaby's, and a man the narrator encounters in both her social and professional life — claims that Adriaan is asking Gaby to return to him. There is no amount of fluency in any language, Kitamura suggests, that can immediately interpret matters of this complexity.
Kitamura takes great care in her depictions of speech and gesture, so that monstrously cruel people maintain their charisma, and intelligent people sound uncertain when they are sure. The acts of speaking, listening and understanding are given proper respect in this work; they inspire fear, amazement and awe.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Katie Kitamura.
Publisher: Riverhead, 225 pages, $26.