Intimacies by Katie Kitamura


It was the review in Reading Matters that took me to this book and the author’s focus on the importance of precise language that kept me reading. The main character is a translator at “the Court” in the Hague, an unnamed international court that brings charges against those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes. She had left New York after her father died and her mother moved to Singapore and she had a one-year appointment as a translator.

The author writes about the art and craft of translation in the Court with precision:

The first time you listened to an interpreter speaking, their voice might sound cold and precise and completely without inflection, but the longer you listened, the more variation you would hear. If a joke was made it was the interpreter’s job to communicate the humor or attempt at humor; similarly, when something was said ironically it was important to indicate that the words were not to be taken at face value. Linguistic accuracy was not enough.

The unnamed narrator tells about her work, including a description of a trial against the former president of an African country. She found the former president compelling, but more overwhelming was interpreting for those who described his cruel actions.

As she was new to the city, she had few friends, but we hear precise and careful descriptions of her friend Jana, then her boyfriend Adriaan. He was married with two children, though his wife had left with the children the previous year. Those descriptions told us about the unclear and ambiguous connections she had.

The author’s writing style is unusual. Many sentences, like this one, are run-on sentences that my high school English teachers would have found unacceptable:  “Every person who took to the stand was projecting an image of one kind or another, their testimony was heavily coached and shaped by either the defense or the prosecution, they had been brought to the Court in order to perform a role.” I found the style hypnotic and took pleasure in the rhythm.

I was happy to live in this exotic world with a pleasing guide who managed with dignity in uncertain circumstances.

The author was born in 1979 in California to a family with Japanese origins. She has written four novels and a non-fiction work about a journey to Japan.

Katie Kitamura, Intimacies, Riverhead Books, 2021, 225 pages. Available in the public library.

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