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13 november 2021

One of the online reviews of Katie Kitamura's novel Intimacies compared her to both Rachel Cusk and W.G. Sebald, which struck me as odd. Cusk and Sebald don't have much in common in terms of style or subject matter. But I suppose that they both use narrative voices that project a certain emotional distance from the material, even if those narrators sometimes can't preserve such emotional distance in the face of their situations.

Such a situation occurs early in Intimacies, told, significantly, at second-hand by the novel's first-person narrator, an interpreter at the international court in The Hague. The narrator's colleague Amina tells her of a trial she'd worked, translating the proceedings for the sole benefit of the accused. In the welter of English and French voices, she and the accused prisoner are the only people who understand Swahili. He is a very bad person, and she can't help both being outraged by him and empathizing with him too. The technologies of the court are such that they should never meet face-to-face – she works via telemetry, in a booth ordinarily unseen – but at one point he distinctly recognizes her among the faceless functionaries of the court, and she is deeply troubled at being unable to maintain the necessary distance.

The narrator will face her own such crisis of intimacy late in the novel, interpreting for a former President from Francophone west Africa who is clearly guilty of terrible genocidal crimes, but able to use the elaborate protections of the Western legal system to defer and defuse any reckoning.

But the intimacies of the title take other forms, too. New to the Netherlands, the narrator makes friends and starts a relationship. The most natural process in the world, yet Intimacies explores, as well as any fiction I've read, the obstacle course that such a process involves. The new arrival enters a system with many movable parts, where the people she befriends have histories, have themselves been newcomers more or less recently and know different levels and kinds of things about one another. She must learn an ephemeral, provisional social structure along with the local language (because though equipped with French, English, and Japanese, she arrives in The Hague knowing almost no Dutch).

In a different kind of novel, the narrator would uncover all sorts of melodramatic secrets about her new acquaintances. It may be something of a spoiler to reveal that Intimacies is no melodrama. The secrets that the narrator's Hague community conceals are the ordinary traffic of life, important to the characters but not unusual or terrible. The unusual, terrible thing is that she does not know them, that she is expected (as in her work as an interpreter) to join a conversation and start talking confidently despite not knowing what has gone before.

And as the narrator acknowledges, there are times in both work and life when she is flying blind, when the effort of technically rendering language into language, and then the world into language and back, leaves her conscious of her own position as "an instrument" (145), a being spoken through but never gathering the will to speak for herself.

Or even to ask questions – and so many things are not straightforward. Her friend Jana, a curator at the Maritshuis art museum, lives in a neighborhood that may or may not be dangerous, that people warn her against but without quite saying why. A man who has been mugged in the vicinity, Anton the book dealer, may be carrying on an affair, unknown to his wife but perhaps known to his twin sister, another mysterious mutual friend. An officious and clearly predatory man named Kees warns the narrator against her new boyfriend Adriaan; Kees turns out to be a defense counsel at the court and oscillates between inappropriate closeness and obliviousness to her existence. Adriaan's wife has absconded to Portugal with their children, and he follows her to arrange a divorce: but will they reconcile? will Adriaan return?

Some of these incidents have soap-opera potential, phrased that way, but as I've said, Intimacies doesn't take such directions. The narrator's Hague circle are complicated people, but not histrionic; her problem is not that the intrigues around her are too complex but that she is too new to the situation.

Intimacies is an understated, psychologically insightful fiction of the kind I really like, about relatively ordinary people with problems that come simply from all the points of contact among their relatively ordinary lives. First-world problems, if you like, though the narrator's job makes her aware of much graver problems in the third world, and of the problem of the first world asserting its dubious moral authority over the third. One slight weakness may be that the crimes against humanity represented in the novel are fictional and thus somewhat generic, and thus somewhat abstract and lacking in the impact that Kitamura tries to represent.

Kitamura writes in comma-spliced run-on sentences, like this one, she keeps adding independent clauses without subordinators or semi-colons, it's a style, it's easy to fall into. It's a style becoming more common in contemporary French and German prose, and I wonder if it will become standard in English-language literary writing. People talk in run-ons, after all, they don't always put an audible period after each full sentence, they carry momentum through into the next utterance.

Kitamura, Katie. Intimacies. New York: Riverhead [Penguin Random House], 2021. PS 3611 .I877I58