The unnamed heroine of Intimacies, Katie Kitamura's fascinating and mysterious new novel, observes that "none of us are able to see the world we are living in — the world, occupying as it does the contradiction between its banality ... and its extremity." She's a new interpreter at The Hague, responsible for the banal function of translating legal proceedings for extremely evil defendants: genocidal former heads of state.
We know only that the narrator came to The Hague by way of New York, her father has just died after a long illness, and her mother has returned to Singapore. Even her age and ethnicity are murky and, strangely, rarely commented upon. Kitamura seems to intentionally test the boundaries of how little biographical information an author can reveal about a protagonist while still making the reader feel intimately connected to them.
Readers will get a sense of both the importance and the futility of the International Criminal Court. The narrator points out that the Court primarily prosecutes crimes against humanity in African nations, becoming an "ineffectual" instrument of "Western imperialism." Of the building that the Court is housed in, the narrator observes "the modern architecture still seemed incongruous, perhaps even lacking the authority I had expected."
When the narrator must interpret for an African head of state accused of enforcing Sharia law and numerous crimes related to the persecution of women, Kitamura portrays the accused's intake process as an hours-long exercise in bureaucratic drudgery. The narrator dryly observes, "I even forgot who I was waiting for, only that I was waiting for someone who might never arrive, and that I might never leave this vestibule." The accused and the narrator develop a Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling dynamic, with the narrator simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the accused's remorselessness.
Outside of work, the narrator wants what anyone moving alone to a new city wants: friendship and love. She gets involved with Adriaan, a married father finalizing a divorce. Not long after they meet, however, he leaves for Portugal. The narrator can't tell whether he's gone to rekindle his marriage or work out the terms of the separation. While she stays in Adriaan's apartment alone for weeks on end, their relationship reduced to a series of infrequent and terse texts, her insecurities grow.
While Adriaan is gone, the narrator develops a fascination with an elegant art historian named Eline and her charismatic, disabled brother Anton. The narrator's description of her profession mirrors her interactions with these new friends: "We interpreters were only extras passing behind the central cast and yet moved with caution, we had a sense of being under observation." Kitamura casts the narrator as an extra in the lives of Adriaan, Eline, Anton, and others. They are named; she is not. And yet, the narrator is the character we're supposed to feel most intimate with. We observe her actively hiding herself, as she reveals every thought and feeling with an abundance of discretion. She's so circumspect that I started to wonder: What exactly did Adriaan and others find alluring about her?
Inside the crucible of a war crimes trial and a relationship that seems doomed, the mysterious narrator gradually breaks down. When her boss at The Hague offers to renew her contract, she demurs and begins to cry there on the spot. Her loss of restraint feels like a major moment in the book, but why? Is she finally coming to terms with her father's passing, her mother's abandonment, Adriaan's desertion, her inability to develop lasting friendships in a new city, or all or some of the above?
I couldn't help but crave a more open, incautious narrator, someone who is more than, as the accused puts it, "part of the institution that [she] serve[s]." The novel effectively comments on the elusiveness of intimacy, but perhaps at the cost of the reader's emotional connection to the narrator. How much of what is factually revealed helps one understand a situation — or a person — more intimately? Even the journalists covering the International Criminal Court "had merely fragments of the narrative and yet they would assemble those fragments into a story like any other story, a story with the appearance of unity." Kitamura's novel has its own appearance of unity, but ultimately illustrates how one's interpretations can fail to help them see the world in which they live.
Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon, among other outlets.