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“The appearance of simplicity is not the same thing as simplicity itself,” thinks the narrator of Intimacies after discovering her Dutch boyfriend, Adriaan, is married. Similarly, while Katie Kitamura’s writing is of the Orwell-approved “clear pane of glass” school, the cumulative effect of her deft, spare sentences is paradoxically confounding; what appears to be a straight path somehow becomes a labyrinth.
Adriaan admits to having a wife. “But I don’t know for how much longer,” he tells the unnamed narrator. “Is that OK?” In fact, very little in this addictively mysterious novel is OK, from the “complex and contradictory” nature of The Hague, where the narrator has moved from New York, to her work as an interpreter at Kitamura’s version of the international criminal court. Here, despite her skill and discipline, she finds “great chasms between words, between two or more languages, that could open up without warning”.
Cracks in her professional and private life widen as the book progresses. A mugging takes place outside her friend’s apartment, and she becomes obsessed with the victim. Adriaan travels to Lisbon to divorce his estranged wife, but days become weeks and he stops texting. All the while she is living in his apartment, but realises she’s left no impression of herself in its rooms, as if to show Adriaan “how easily I would slip into the fabric of his life, how little disturbance I would cause”. In a moment of apprehension that further heightens the novel’s almost uncanny atmosphere of threat, she judges herself “complicit in my own erasure”.
This echoes Kitamura’s previous novel, A Separation. Its narrator, also unnamed, works as a literary translator, a job she values because of its “potential for passivity” (before that, in Gone to the Forest and The Longshot, Kitamura explored a disintegrating colonial state and mixed martial arts contests). But what lies at the root of her latest narrator’s paralysis? True to her repressive tendencies, she never simply announces her reasons – she is as much outside herself as we are. She seems to have had a diplomatic brat’s childhood, her family living in various European cities before settling in New York. She is grieving – her father died recently, after which her mother made a “sudden retreat” to Singapore – and she feels profoundly dislocated. “I want to be in a place that feels like home,” she thinks after a Chinese woman addresses her in Mandarin, a language she cannot speak. But “where that was, I did not know”. This biographical information arrives in scraps and asides because, somewhat like Faye, the effaced central character of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the attentions of Kitamura’s narrator are mostly directed outward. Several of the stories other characters tell her are extremely reminiscent of Cusk in their psychological acuity and moral dimension – as well as their fluency and uninterruptedness. The notable dissenter is a rare book dealer called Anton, whose acid rant about a rich couple’s vulgar house is pure Thomas Bernhard.
Anton is involved in two of the moments of intimacy that punctuate the novel, nearly all of which are ethically dubious or otherwise uncomfortable: the apparent collusion of two of the narrator’s friends, who supposedly don’t know one another; an ambiguous proposition at the end of a friendly dinner; words murmured in bed; sex in a restaurant toilet. But the most complex intimacies take place between the court’s interpreters and the defendants. In one of the novel’s stand-out scenes the narrator interprets at a private meeting between the court’s most high-profile defendant, the former president of an unnamed African state, and the legal team he disdains: “These men who hectored him about the specificities of his actions, he wished to be free of them, in the same way that he wished to be free of his guilt.”
Her ability to interpret events is fouled because of her inability to 'draw a line from one thing to the next'
The former president thinks differently of the narrator. “The first time I saw you,” he says, “I thought: I like this woman, because she is not truly from the West.” But where is she from, and where should she be? She exemplifies the way in which we can function apparently normally – feed ourselves, perform our jobs, even maintain friendships – but at the same time be utterly adrift in our lives.
When she interprets for the former president, a similar relationship between presence and absence is described: “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.” Her ability to interpret the events of her own life is fouled in a similar contradiction because of her inability to “draw a line from one thing to the next”. Kitamura explores the political ramifications of this as well as the personal, describing how “none of us are able to really see the world we are living in” – that is, one in which the western world makes the rules, whether economic or judicial, and decides who must pay for breaking them and who gets a pass.
This element of Kitamura’s novel – perhaps what inspired Barack Obama to put it on his summer reading list – gives it a sweep at odds with its claustrophobic focus, and its specificity comes to feel universal, too. If it works for you as it did for me, the narrator’s atomised experiences, her inability to forge a coherent narrative from her life, will feel compellingly strange as the pages rapidly turn – but also uncomfortably familiar, the book’s final intimacy being the one between narrator and reader.
• Intimacies is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.