Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, is the only book I’ve read in which the London Review of Books provides a plot point – insofar as the novel can be said to have a plot. The narrator, a literary translator, reeling from the murder of her husband, combs through his belongings to try to stitch together a narrative that will make sense of what happened to him. Everything Christopher did when he was alive had shades of secrecy: the non-fiction book he was working on about grief, his seemingly meaningless and extravagant final trip to Greece, his reading habits. Among his effects, his widow comes across a back issue of the LRB – the one he was reading when he died. The paper is lying open at the classifieds section, with an ad circled at the bottom left-hand corner of a page:
INFIDELITIES: Has life become somewhat stale and routine? Would discreet dating introductions give you back that missing special spark?
Infidelities is all about the alternative relationship experience. We offer you a personal, professional, bespoke scheme, far removed from internet searching. Women are especially welcomed to our unique project. Please telephone James for a private friendly chat.
The widow reacts more powerfully to this ad than she does to her husband’s murder. It’s not just Christopher’s infidelity – or its suggestion – that bothers her. She’s appalled by the sloppiness of the ad itself: ‘a complete mess’ composed by a copywriter with ‘no ear to speak of’. Her outrage is a result of her own fastidiousness and occasional pompousness. ‘While it didn’t matter in most circumstances, the ad had been placed in the London Review of Books, which had an educated and sophisticated readership, a readership who thought of itself that way.’ The ad doesn’t belong among serious people, and the widow – graceful, controlled, snobbish – believes that everything should have its place. In the end, it’s an irrelevant clue, further tedious evidence of her husband’s sexual compulsions, his commitment to his own pleasure, his faithlessness to her. Still, although he only left a record of his interest in the personals, she is sure he would have read and enjoyed the entire issue. A bad husband but a good subscriber.
Intimacies, Kitamura’s latest novel, covers similar terrain. The narrator, another sophisticated linguist, remains unnamed. She lives in The Hague and works as an interpreter in occasionally high-profile trials at the International Court of Justice. Again, there is a missing man. Adriaan, with whom she has been enjoying a tentative relationship, leaves to visit his estranged wife in Lisbon and abruptly cuts off all communication. The narrator stays in his apartment and conducts herself so as not to leave any trace of her presence. She wants to prove – even in Adriaan’s absence – that she can slot seamlessly into his life.
The narrator’s botched personal relationships, her failures of intimacy, are mirrored in the bland symmetry of the modern city:
The Hague bore a family resemblance to the European cities in which I had spent long stretches of my life, and perhaps for this reason I was surprised by how easily and frequently I lost my bearings. In those moments, when the familiarity of the streets gave way to confusion, I would wonder if I could be more of a visitor here.
The court is at a remove from society, employing people who provide ease and prevent disruption and scandal. The Hague bureaucracy is defined by an absurd, stilted politeness that masks all kinds of sinister machination. The detention centre, where the accused are held before they are brought to trial, is ‘another one of those buildings that exists in the landscape in which you live, of which you never take real notice and whose purpose you never know’. It reminds her of a similar facility above a food court in New York, with blacked out windows and soundproofing to prevent the screams disturbing the customers below: ‘People eating their sandwiches and sipping their cappuccinos, who had no idea of what was taking place directly above them, no idea of the world in which they were living.’ On the streets of The Hague she watches three immigrant men carefully extracting cigarette butts from between the cobblestones, a glimpse of the endless hidden labour that goes into keeping up appearances. It’s an ‘example of how the city’s veneer of civility was constantly giving way. In places it was barely there at all.’ She feels some affinity with these men, as she too works in the background, her selfhood constantly surrendered to the greater purpose of the court.
The act of interpretation, as the narrator performs it, requires the abstention of self in several ways:
The first time you listened to an interpreter speaking, their voice might sound cold and precise and completely without inflection, 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 humour or attempt at humour; 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, for example it is often said that an actor interprets a role, a musician a piece of music.
Later, she describes interpreting as ‘disquieting in the extreme, like being placed inside a body I had no desire to occupy’.
The body she has now been placed inside is a president on trial for war crimes. (In 2016, Kitamura visited the ICJ to watch the trial of Laurent Gbagbo, former president of Ivory Coast.) Working as his interpreter induces a constant sense of dread, a mood amplified by Kitamura’s long, winding, unsettling sentences. The narrator watches the former president in the courtroom, and comes to feel she knows him:
His gaze moved to the public gallery which was also emptying. His expression tightened. The guard leaned towards him and he nodded. His shoulders slumped and he suddenly appeared much older. I realised it must have taken great effort to appear before the court with his posture so erect, his bearing still presidential, to marshal what charisma remained, because contrary to popular belief, charisma was not inherent but had to be constantly reinforced.
I also came to understand, over the course of those sessions in the courtroom, how disciplined the former president really was. The polo neck and chinos were replaced by the tailored suit and with it came a sombre, even dignified, mien. I understood then the tremendous will that powered the man. Unlike the lawyers, and, on occasion, judges, his face never betrayed him. Instead, he wore the same expression throughout the proceedings, one of keen but impersonal interest. He maintained the effect of a star debater on a university team, somebody who was looking for openings, who took note of everything, a man who conceded nothing and had nothing to conceal.
She recognises this behaviour for the performance it is, and can see the reckless devotion such charisma can inspire. In A Separation, the narrator reflects on her husband’s behaviour in similar terms:
Christopher was a careless flirt, he did it without thinking, as a reflex, the way people said, hello, thank you, you’re welcome, the way a man held a door open for a woman. He was too liberal in this regard, he risked spreading his charm thin. Once you perceived the patches where it had worn through, it was hard to see the charm – hard to see the man himself, if you were in any way wary of charisma – entirely whole again.
Kitamura is interested in the moment when a performance collapses, when the void underneath the expressionless mask is revealed. But sometimes it’s hard to resist being beguiled.
The narrator in Intimacies can’t help developing an attachment to the president. ‘Over the course of those long hours in the booth, I sometimes had the unpleasant sensation that of all the people in the room below, of all the people in the city itself, the former president was the person I knew best.’ What else is there to do with an overwhelming force like his? Is it not easier to submit, to allow yourself to be dominated? To become like one of his supporters in the public gallery – loyal, understanding, drawn even to his hideous faults?
The illusion of connection between president and interpreter is shattered by the testimony of a young woman, a witness who experienced his brutality first-hand:
His face stiffened, the congeniality and the charm withdrew. He leaned back into his chair. You sit there, so smug. As if you are beyond reproach, he said. He turned to look at me, his face mere inches from mine. But you are no better than me. You think my morals are somehow different to those of you and your kind. And yet there is nothing that separates you from me.
The narrator also has to translate the words of the witness. ‘It prickled through me, the strangeness of speaking her words for her, the wrongness of using this I that was not sufficiently capacious.’ The interpreter is a vessel, performing someone else’s pain, and it has led directly to her alienation, her sense of dislocation. ‘Interpretation can be profoundly disorienting,’ she explains, ‘you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain 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.’ The narrator finds something compelling in this state of disassociation, but she knows, on some level, that it’s unsustainable. If she could live like this for ever she would: outsource her emotions, keep her own life suppressed, flat, impersonal. But the president’s outburst makes her doubt her moral position. Violence is its own sort of intimacy – it’s the shock that helps her break through to what’s real. ‘I no longer believed that equanimity was either tenable or desirable. It corroded everything inside.’ Isn’t impassiveness another form of cowardice?