JULY 20, 2021
KATIE KITAMURA EXPLORES intimate relationships on all levels in her work. This closeness can be generated between two people — maybe a partner or friend, found in a small group in a warm setting, or even captured alone with oneself. In her previous novel, A Separation, a woman leaves her unfaithful husband only to keep their separation to herself and tucked away from others. When she learns her husband has gone missing after they separate, she reluctantly goes to Greece to look for him, half concerned about wanting to leave the past behind and half worried about what she might find. Of course, in searching for him she is bombarded by new revelations about their marriage and the man she married, shattering the once intimate relationship they shared. The secrets that unravel easily question how well we know one another, even in our most intimate situations, and how our inner lives have the power to separate us from each other.
Kitamura poses a similar question in her latest novel, Intimacies. The protagonist, an unnamed woman from New York, moves to The Hague for a contract job at the International Court as an interpreter. While living in the Netherlands, the protagonist meets a Dutchman named Adriaan, who ultimately becomes the reason she wants to stay. He is separated from his wife, the woman who left him to pursue a new love in Lisbon and took the kids along for the ride. He seems heartbroken and lonely, similar to the protagonist herself, which is why they seem to fit. However, we learn throughout the story there are many things unsaid between these characters and those around them. The impact of these hidden truths, of the life we cannot see — “none of us are able to really see the world we are living in” — can cause the most havoc:
[T]his world, occupying as it does the contradiction between its banality (the squat wall of the detention center, the bus running along its ordinary route) and its extremity (the cell and the man inside the cell), is something that we see only briefly and then do not see again for a long time, if ever. It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed, the horrifying image or the voice speaking the unspeakable, in order to exist in the world we must and we do forget, we live in a state of I know but I do not know.
Throughout the novel, intimacy takes shape, and is tested, in various places. The protagonist finds herself in several intimate situations, both in her personal and professional life. There is the intimacy between her and Adriaan, no doubt as their new relationship continues to blossom, but there is also the intimacy between the protagonist and her outgoing friend Jana, a curator at a national gallery with whom she spends many dinners with, and the intimacy between Jana and Adriaan when they are first introduced. Nothing is off limits when it comes to a seemingly intimate interaction, not even in the Court where a closeness also takes shape between the protagonist and the accused. While interpreting for a former president who is charged of horrific war crimes, the protagonist sits closely to him as she speaks French directly into his ear.
This is not the only uncomfortable interaction for the protagonist. More curious is the encounter with Adriaan’s estranged wife, Gaby. She returns to Adriaan’s apartment to find the protagonist sitting at the dining room table but does not appear shocked nor disturbed; instead she is oddly calm. She moves around the apartment with ease while the protagonist remains silently sitting at the table, and avoiding discussion of the issue at large. Gaby offers the protagonist coffee and refers to her as Adriaan’s friend who is helping with the apartment, a role the protagonist wasn’t aware of until someone said it. Not much happens between these two women, and yet, it feels intense. The tension from what is not being said makes for a more frightening experience than if the expected occurred.
Kitamura’s prose is assertive and straightforward, an interesting contrast with the complexity of her characters. She has a knack for bringing us into these intimate spaces while still keeping us far enough away to see things as an outsider looking in — “intimate information in the details visible through the drapes.” Language is a strong tool in this book, referring both to the author’s writing and to the communication between characters. It is used not only to communicate thoughts and feelings between lovers and friends, but also to break the barrier between foreign countries as well as different morals and intentions. What is said in any language can be powerful, but silence also holds its own. What goes unsaid between these characters is a language of its own, providing a stronger sense of suspense that is as realistic as it is disturbing.
The unnamed protagonist is a woman with extreme interiority. She may not say a lot but she is always thinking, always questioning her actions and those around her. She is subtle in her words and her actions: a nod here, a glance there, she is never too overly affectionate or intensely dramatic. Even when she first sees the framed photograph of Adriaan’s wife and children in his apartment, she barely flinches. Instead, she internalizes that photograph until it consumes her whole. She also finds herself obsessing over a robbery that takes place in her close circle, feverishly thinking about the victim without even knowing him, only to have her obsession increase when she does meet him and learns he keeps even deeper secrets of his own. It is at work where she finds her voice. As an interpreter, it is her job to speak not her words, but those of the others in the Court. Her voice is heard when she is interpreting, and has a power to bring people together, but the real power resides in what is not said. It is the control she has to keep her own thoughts separate from what she says that makes her so intriguing, further proving what’s hidden inside can sometimes hold the most power.
Ultimately, the protagonist is most intimate with herself. She keeps so much inside, turning things over and over in her head rather than working anything out with others, that she is closest to her inner self. This is a strength for her — a devoted thinker, but sometimes it can prove detrimental, especially when she starts spiraling.
The men in her life seem to need her for something, usually for their own benefit, and have no problem stringing her along. Adriaan asks her to stay at his apartment while he’s in Lisbon chasing down his wife and kids, and she initially takes this as an offer of affection. She believes he is asking her to stay, and she waits for his return. But once a week turns into a month, she soon realizes she is merely a fixture in a home that is not her own, and that she may be more of a house sitter, the very kind Adriaan’s wife labeled her as, than anyone’s real love interest.
At the Court, she finds a similar awakening with the former president. While the two barely have a relationship — talking only when needed for work purposes — the former president does go out of his way to make her feel needed: locking eyes with her at the trial and asking for her opinion on his case. After interpreting during his trial, she realizes he had an agenda for her all along. He only wanted her there as a neutral party, one who didn’t “insist on examining the actions of his past,” like the majority of those in the Court. She was a “pure instrument, someone without will or judgement, a consciousness-free zone into which he could escape, the only company he could now bear.”
The roles of men in this story make it hard not to examine the power of gender. The woman protagonist is quiet, keeps to herself, and does her job, while the men around her are manipulative and reek of power. Most actions seen by the male characters can be viewed as cunning, and oftentimes simply cruel. There is also something to consider about an unnamed female protagonist, and whether that is a nod to power dynamics. One might argue an unnamed woman protagonist is seen as invisible, and there can be some truth to that in this case. She is quiet and moves around — sometimes barely being seen, but there’s a power to this as well. It allows her to walk freely, to observe, to gain trust, and to learn what she wants from people and what she needs for herself in the process.
The gender gap doesn’t necessarily prevail in this story either. True power comes from within, as the protagonist slowly learns. After being offered a permanent position on the Court, she is left with the decision of staying at The Hague or leaving for a fresh start. Her first thought is of Adriaan, if he will want her to stay, but it is not the last. She has the power to decide what she will do with her life. Her inner self has the answers. She just needs to continue to listen.