By Katie Kitamura
Penguin Random House, UK
Like many of her previous works, Katie Kitamura’s fourth novel, Intimacies, has been showered with praise. It made The New York Times’s list of ‘10 Best Books’, was longlisted for the National Book Award and the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Joyce Carol Oates Prize. It was also one of former American president Barack Obama’s favourite books of the year.
So much acclaim can often rouse unsustainable expectations, but Intimacies does not disappoint. It is short and contains nothing extraneous; no passages which merit skimming, no page that can be turned over after only a cursory glance. The author has weighed each word before including it in the text. Even the one-word title proclaims that when a single word can convey the meaning, no more need to be used.
The story is about a rootless, youngish woman, never named, who is grieving for her father and for a place to call home. She comes to The Hague on a year’s contract to be an interpreter at the “Court” — probably the International Court of Justice. The city is strange for her, the apartment she occupies is barely furnished and she knows hardly anyone.
After New York — from where she comes — The Hague seems civilised, well-mannered and manicured. But there is more to it than meets the eye. At one instance, Kitamura shows how elaborately the streets are rid of the plague of discarded cigarette butts, at once elucidating the city’s emphasis on cleanliness while pointing to the presence of at least one segment of society which is devoid of civic sense.
A much-praised novel by Katie Kitamura does not disappoint, its writing restrained, understated and subtle, yet packing a big wallop
Almost the entire cast of the book are wanderers; they are not only not from The Hague, but have lived in and left many places. In this milieu, our heroine befriends Jana, whom she meets through a mutual friend in London. Jana’s recently bought apartment is in the seedier part of town. On her very first visit to Jana’s apartment, the woman hears police sirens announcing an untoward incident at the doorstep of the building, a mugging, possibly a herald of more unpleasantness to come.
At a party at the museum where Jana works, the woman meets Adriaan, a resident of The Hague. They are attracted to each other and initiate a relationship. But, from a chance meeting with the rather sleazy character Rees, she discovers that Adriaan is married with two children. She also learns that the somewhat narcissistic Rees is a successful defence lawyer. These are adroit moves by Kitamura, bringing to the fore that appearances are deceiving.
The mugging at Jana’s building brings the woman in contact with the victim of the crime and his sister. The sister is concerned about her brother — not only because of his injuries at the hands of the criminals. There are intimations of the victim’s complicity, in some way, in his own mugging. At a later encounter, our protagonist watches, unnoticed, as the victim engages in unsavoury conduct with a sexy blonde. Again, smooth surfaces are found to cover many secrets, and what you see is not what you get.
Kitamura’s spare prose keeps the reader engaged fully. There are undercurrents of menace and the suspense is palpable as the author plays out each scene and then analyses every nuance, verbal and physical.
The woman spends most of her waking hours at work. She finds her work to be demanding. But she has a natural bent toward precision, in language and in life, which is exactly what is required in her new job and so she starts to enjoy it. She finds that her accuracy makes her good at translating, even though her language skills are not extensive.
In her work, she deals with criminals and monsters of cruelty. She is required to translate and relay their speech without any inflection or emphasis, whatever her feelings about the crimes or the criminals. However, even as she uses iron control to keep her feelings in check, she finds that the criminals often have charismatic personalities that are difficult to withstand.
The story comes to a slow head with her lover leaving her in the lurch while she is called upon to translate for one of the worst African tyrants on trial, a former president who has perpetrated unspeakable atrocities. She is ashamed to find herself responsive to the fact of his erstwhile glory as well as the vigour of his personality. Only when a young woman — one of the thousands of his victims — gives graphic testimony against him, is she finally repulsed by his unabated arrogance and nonchalance.
Even as our protagonist finds herself in the midst of the former president’s trial, she has to contend with the unexplained absence and silence of Adriaan. Rees, the one person who might know about him, is in her life, but as the flamboyant and highly effective defence counsel busy whitewashing the sins of the former president.
The woman loses contact with Jana and the mugging victim’s sister because of the toll her work is taking on her mental and physical condition. She finds herself very alone in an alien city. It is at this juncture that she is offered a permanent job at the Court.
In Adriaan’s absence and in the throes of the trial which seems to be going awry, the woman declines, yet she doesn’t know where to go and what to do next. Her disillusionment is complete when the former president goes free because of lack of evidence and gloatingly proclaims his innocence of the crimes that everyone knows he has committed.
However, without divulging too much, it can be said that Intimacies closes on a note of hope and a possibility of future happiness. The reader finds solace in the conclusion even though the thread of suspense running through the book ends in no great denouement.
For readers living in our part of the world, the protagonist’s gut-wrenching reaction to the release of the former president who had brutally murdered hundreds of his countrymen may seem excessive. We are used to death and disaster. Every blast claims dozens of lives. Neither are we shocked when a murderer is let off by the court for lack of evidence. Kitamura is more sensitive than us and less inured to injustices and the same goes for her heroine. Her reaction may not be ours, but we can see its validity.
Intimacies is a beautifully written book of great complexity, dealing with emotional and psychological truths, in which the author effortlessly plays with the two threads of the woman’s life — personal and judicial — and forces us to think.
Throughout, it also highlights the importance of language. The art of speaking, listening and translating, of how speech can obscure truth and how the nuances of the spoken word can seamlessly merge into sympathy, empathy and antipathy is apparent on every page.
Kitamura is restrained, understated and subtle, yet packs a big wallop with a short book that is, in its own quiet way, a thoroughly satisfying read.
The reviewer is a freelance writer, author of the novel The Tea Trolley and translator of Toofan Se Pehlay: Safar-i-Europe Ki Diary
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 22nd, 2023