On the bookshelf
By Katie Kitamura
Head of river: 240 pages, $ 26
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We are all immersed in and used to our own circumstances, especially when accompanied by personal security and power. It’s a fairly common combination for the kind of American who decides to live abroad, like the anonymous narrator of “Privacy», The new novel by Katie Kitamura.
But circumstances change. As the narrator’s friend observes after a man was assaulted outside her apartment in The Hague, “One day you live an ordinary life with its ordinary ups and downs, then that life is torn apart and you can’t never feel completely safe again. “
The narrator is a newcomer to the Netherlands, arriving from New York, a place that ceased to feel at home after her father died and her mother left for Singapore. She works as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court and does not know if she will stay beyond the end of her contract. Her decision hinges on her tenuous relationship with her Dutch boyfriend Adriaan, a married father who spends much of the book ignoring his texts in Lisbon, where he went to settle affairs with his ex-wife.
The performer shares many characteristics with the translator of Kitamura’s latest novel, 2017’s “A separation“; both are anonymous women adrift in foreign lands, dealing with questions of love, power and language in increasingly painful circumstances.
“One thing about dropping these characters in ‘unfamiliar places’ is that they quite naturally become sort of cultural archaeologists,” says Kitamura, speaking with me on a video call from Paris, where she teaches an MFA workshop for New York University. “They’re trying to figure out how it works. The rules are not clear to them.
The device of anonymity underlines the alien status of the narrators in a disturbing and ubiquitous way. “I am always interested in the characters a little on the fringes of the dominant culture, whatever it is, or in the observers who occupy this liminal space”, specifies the author. “Once you are nominated you are part of the system in one way or another and you are recognized. You have been named and seen.
By withholding such key information, Kitamura is also able to obscure his narrators to the reader, essentially blurring their characteristics. It’s a nice trick, which allows him to get around a common expectation placed on non-white writers: to build our stories around race through a filter of otherness.
“There’s a kind of pressure,” she says, “especially once your characters are, say, identified as Japanese-American or whatever, to execute that identity for the alleged white readership, which has always me. sounded problematic and something I didn’t ‘I don’t want to do. The narrator of “Intimacy” is of Japanese origin, but it comes up indirectly, and not in the usual context of cultural difference: “It is a novel that speaks of complicity, of understanding how the central character fits into various power structures and social structures. “
The tribunal is a cosmopolitan place as well as a noble institution of justice, but the uncomfortable truth is that most of the defendants brought to justice are from African countries. The performer brings her own legacy of atrocities through her American and Japanese heritage, and she struggles to maintain a stance of pure judgment, even though she is horrified by the testimony in the genocide trial of a former African president. .
She also has the luxury of leaving these horrors at court, going home and worrying about her boyfriend. “I find myself sometimes trying to figure out what the ethical position is to be in a world where you know terrible things are happening, and at the same time you are trying to move forward with your life on a really small scale. scale, ”says Kitamura. “One of the few things you can do is keep that cognitive dissonance in your head and not let that extremity normalize in your experience. I think it’s very, very difficult to do.
It is a universal phenomenon – who among us has not been more touched by an unanswered text than by the news of someone, somewhere, dying? – but “Intimités” highlights it without mercy. “It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed,” thinks the narrator, “the horrifying image or voice speaking the unspeakable, to exist in the world we must and we forget, we live in a state of I know but I don’t know. ” With the keen consciousness of a stranger, she reveals with every stroke of insight the hidden infrastructure that underlies the seeming calm and stability of our lives.
The resulting narrative is unique, obliquely suspenseful, with the subtle but distinctive imprint of detective fiction. Kitamura’s narrator is passive, confined to roles that allow limited range of motion. Yet the book vibrates with tension, much of it emanating from his very passivity, from his willingness to stand still while the earth trembles beneath his feet.
Kitamura’s prose is responsible for this effect – she writes like a concert violinist, with clarity and control and a sustained, uncomfortable treble. She grew up reading Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton, and her influences include Patricia Highsmith, Patrick Modiano and Marguerite Duras: of another.
Like “A Separation”, “Intimacies” is steeped in violence, as well as a terribly thick atmosphere and a keen sense of the frame associated with the crime genre. The narrator is also placed in the position of a detective, “someone who often has only pieces of the whole but not the whole story” and who seeks to make sense of the fragments.
“Obviously, I don’t indulge in the pleasures of the genre, which I would if I knew how,” Kitamura says. “But I think the end of a crime is useful in opening up almost existential territory for these characters.” For the narrator of “Intimities”, this interior territory becomes a minefield when the former president, a monstrous but charismatic war criminal, designates her as his favorite performer.
“A Separation” and “Intimacies” are both stand-alone, but they are part of a thematic set – along with Kitamura’s ongoing work, on an unnamed actor – examining the enormous power of language. “The translator, the performer, the actor, they are very committed to transmitting the language of others,” says Kitamura. She describes herself as “unfortunately extremely English-speaking”, but acknowledges that “occupying other stories and other bodies and speaking their language for them is not far from what a novelist does.”
The court interpreter has an ethical duty to be careful with the language. Small deviations in tone can influence trials, and its job is to facilitate the impartial transmission of meaning. The novelist, who uses the authority of language to promote her own understanding of the human condition, has a similar responsibility. But as Kitamura points out, “Language is not inherently neutral, is it? Language comes from a place – it is produced, often by a ruling class – so speaking the language is always loaded. “
Of course, there is no such thing as a neutral path, just as there is no such thing as a neutral identity. “Even when the tongue passes through you, it leaves some mark, and you change it back in some way or another, so there is no pure passage of the tongue from one place to another. “, she says. “This contamination is also how we are branded as people in the world. “
Cha’s latest novel is “Your House Will Pay”.