by Katie Kitamura

reviewed by Greg Chase

With Intimacies, her fourth novel, Katie Kitamura cements her status as one of contemporary fiction’s most controlled and perceptive writers, particularly when it comes to ambiguities of language and the risks of miscommunication. The novel’s unnamed first-person narrator has just moved to The Hague, where she works as an interpreter for a court clearly based on (though never explicitly identified as) the International Criminal Court. Her job is to translate testimony from one language into another in real time. As she recognizes, there’s something inherently contradictory about this work: legal proceedings demand “extreme precision,” whereas “great chasms” exist between the expressive possibilities of one language and those of another. The narrator is meant to be an “instrument” who facilitates legal proceedings, but her turns of phrase, as well as her affect and tone, can influence the outcome of a trial.

The novel hits its stride about a third of the way through, when the narrator is assigned to work with a team of lawyers defending an unspecified West African country’s ex-president, who has been accused of ethnic cleansing after a contested election. The accused comes off as scornful of the court and bored by the deliberations of his defense team, yet oddly attuned to the narrator’s presence. He frequently “nod[s]” at her during court sessions, “[a]s if to recognize the work that I performed.”

Meanwhile, the narrator struggles to find her footing in The Hague. She has one friend, a curator of Serbian-Ethiopian descent, and she is in a relationship with a married man who may or may not be in the process of separating permanently from his wife. We learn little about the narrator’s past, other than the fact that her father is dead, she is an only child, and her mother, with whom she is “not in the habit of regularly speaking,” now lives in Singapore. She has “native fluency in English and Japanese from my parents, and in French from a childhood in Paris.”

Through this dislocated narrator, Kitamura offers a fresh take on the relationship between the personal and the political. Set during the run-up to the Brexit referendum—and with concerns about the American presidential election hovering in the background—Intimacies explores how far one should seek to understand proponents of isolationism and intolerance. (At one point, during a commotion in the courtroom, the judge sternly instructs the former president, “Please control your supporters,” a line that will resonate with readers in chilling new ways after the events of January 6, 2021.)

In Kitamura’s hands, the narrator’s cosmopolitanism shades into moral relativism, a constitutional inability to make strong judgments or take decisive action. She is quick to recognize legitimate criticisms of the court, such as the fact that it “had primarily investigated and made arrests in African countries, even as crimes against humanity proliferated around the world.” More troublingly, she finds herself secretly rooting for the former president, “flinch[ing] when the proceedings seemed to go against him,” feeling that “of all the people in the city [ … ] [he] was the person I knew best.” It is as though the numerous languages she hears spoken around her have crowded out her sense of self.

Intimacies has its shortcomings. The scenes outside the court, which typically consist of the narrator having dinner or attending some sort of event with one of the novel’s secondary characters, can drag. Despite the intriguing political and philosophical questions it raises, Intimacies focuses on a relatively small group of cultured, upper-middle class characters and shows only a cursory interest in portraying other elements of Dutch society.

But Kitamura has a real gift for tone. She infuses seemingly mundane events—staying in someone else’s apartment, encountering the same person in two different contexts—with a powerful sense of dread. She calls to mind W. G. Sebald in her portrayal of the finite nature of human perspective as a kind of chronic confusion, a thick and inescapable “cloud of unknowing.”

Intimacies looks back on the political and cultural chaos of the last decade and wonders what kinds of epistemological and moral certainties remain available to us. It is more concerned with raising these questions than with attempting to offer clear answers; it is, in other words, a successful novel: subtle, carefully constructed, and not easily reducible to any kind of coherent political position.

Published on October 26, 2021