Yesterday, I finished reading Katie Kitamura’s recent novel Intimacies, which follows an interpreter at the International Criminal Court, who has recently moved to The Hague for that job. The novel vaults between various distances and immediacies, shifting narrative tense, sometimes mid-scene. Across this exploration of various “intimacies,” Kitamura is interested in the relationship between distance and intensity. Whereas the novel navigates between the protagonist’s work, interpreting for those accused and victims of the crimes against humanity that the court adjudicates, and her everyday life in The Hague, the protagonist herself persistently recedes, becoming something even less than Isherwood’s camera or Emerson’s eyeball.
This is, crucially, part of the job of the court interpreter. In early scenes of the protagonist’s work, Kitamura devotes more detail to the strenuous effort that goes into being such a recessive character than to the actual content of her interpretation. As these details accumulate, the novel becomes a stunning meditation on the kinds of interference and distance that produce something like “intimacies.” Even more than the protagonist’s love interest Adriaan, her most important relationship becomes with a former president of an African country, accused of horrendous crimes in the wake of his refusal to accept a lost election. The protagonist spends hours interpreting for him, while he meets with lawyers, develops a defense strategy, and the strenuous bodily effort that goes into this interpretation marks some of the novel’s most stunningly disturbing moments.
While this may be true of any major cosmopolitan city, The Hague seems to be the place where distances collapse, where languages and people and crimes and relationships require the most interpretation. The conduits for these interpretation seek to make themselves as invisible as possible, trying to interpret “so securely that nothing seemed to penetrate and nothing escaped.” In one moment of the former president’s trial, a witness requires two layers of interpretation, two interpreters who bring her language into French, then English, and Kitamura knots the scene around the dynamics between these invisibilized and invisibilizing language workers. In one moment, the interpreters trip over each other, but rather than making either stand out, this error leads to a confusion of who actually speaks in Kitamura’s scene:
The other interpreter looked down against as the witness paused. Sorry, I did not allow for the interpretation, he said. I apologize. The witness looked up to the booths. I apologize, I said. May I continue?Katie Kitamura, Intimacies, 185
The word “said” is one of the most boring in fiction, but here, its doubling gives it a sort of thickness that reveals the complications of this scene. In moving from “he said” to “I said,” it becomes impossible to follow who is apologizing, who has made an error. You see, Intimacies contains almost no quotation marks, as direct dialogue is revealed to be the novel’s greatest fiction. At one moment, when she looks up from her notepad while interpreting for the former president and his defense team, she sees “the words I had been saying, for nearly twenty minutes now, cross-border raid, mass grave, armed youth.”
Part of the strength of Kitamura’s novel is the modulate the viscerality of the content of her characters’ lives, so that the most disturbing details can sometimes be felt the most numbly. In this way, she shows how language, representation, attention, and interpretation transform the experience of everyday life. In one scene, at an art exhibition of Dutch Golden Age still lives, an art historian points out that, while so many of the paintings emphasize domesticity and calm, they were created at the most rapid expansion of the Dutch empire: “It means something, to face inward, to turn your back on the storm brewing outside.”
At the dinner following the exhibition’s opening, each still life is recreated by a food artist, and the guests eat the recreated paintings, reaching through their accompanying frame, “in order to take a piece of cheese or a leg of meat or indeed to pluck a grape.” The dinner ironically transforms Golden Age painting into the moment of its decadence, as guests get to witness the inevitable decay of all that facing inward.
These paintings represent the opposite force of the protagonist’s interpretive work. Here, the original image is passed on with infidelity, intentionally decaying, falling apart, rotting. As much of the protagonist’s work is shaped by a numb interpretation of horrific violence, the novel stuns when Kitamura counterposes that work with these more ordinary estrangements that somehow feel more visceral than crimes against humanity. It is these moments, when interpretation breaks down or at least temporarily falls apart, that we most vividly experience the world, when we search for a new language or perspective, when we stop passing along another’s words and search for a direct dialogue of our own.
One of the only times the former president speaks directly to, rather than through, the protagonist is near the end of the novel, after the case against him has been thrown out. He picks up on her displeasure, her sense of injustice at his freedom: “You think I am a bad person Despite the fact that the case against me will–it now seems almost certainly–be thrown out.” He goes on, “Even so, you must see that the justice of this Court is far from impartial, you come from a country that has committed terrible crimes and atrocities. Under different circumstances your State Department would be on trial here, not me. Everyone knows this to be the case.” When a lawyer asks the protagonist why she let him say these things to her, why she didn’t fight back, she simply replies, “Because he didn’t say anything that was untrue.” It is in these moments that the interpretive circuit breaks down, when feedback occurs, disrupting the neat passage of untruths that invisible interpretation facilitates.