What an interesting novel – Intimacies by Katie Kitamura – an unexplored corner of the globe, a life previously uncontemplated. There is something new under the sun. Once again, we are presented with a first-person novel where the main character remains unnamed, perhaps because she represents a new reality. She is a child of our global world, Serbian mother, Ethiopian father. She lives in NYC while offering care to her father during a long illness. He mother has gone back to Singapore where the family used to live. After her father dies NYC holds too many sad memories. Because she knows several languages well enough to speak as a native speaker and others to at least understand, she applies for and is given a one-year contract for a job at the International Court of Justice at the Hague in the Netherlands.
After six months she has learned a bit of Dutch and has acquired a boyfriend, Adriaan. The intimacies a reader might expect to find in a book with this title are not what we find. There are no sex scenes. This author is exploring the intimacies of people bumping up against each other in ways that are not at all intimate and yet learning intimate things about virtual strangers.
She is isolated from the city she lives in. She has made a few friends and there are the people she works with but they are separated by the nature of the work. She has no truly intimate connections. Her job as an interpreter at the court has her confined to a glass box, wearing headphones, translating from one language to another almost without listening to content, because she must switch languages quickly in her mind and remember the text of a witness or lawyer word for word.
She has a boyfriend, and he invites her to live with him, but then he leaves to pursue his wife and children in Portugal. He tells her to stay until he returns, but then he stops communicating. Eventually she moves back to her own nondescript apartment. She admires the way her friend Jana has personalized her new home, she longs for the permanence of a place to settle, but she stays adrift. She arrives late for a dinner with Adriaan and Jana, and feels that some intimacy has taken place in her absence that is not shared with her. She makes another friend who turns out to support the unethical behavior of a brother.
What happens while she is in that glass box is intimate in an entirely different way. One of the trials involves a terrorist who has done unspeakable things but has a charming demeanor at odds with his horrendous acts. Another involves a deposed president of a nation in turmoil who bears no guilt for acts of genocide, torture and execution. But he doesn’t present as a monster. He presents as a victim of people who are crueler and more power-hungry than he is. “Although she knew there was nothing the man could do to her, she could not deny that she was afraid, he was a man who inspired fear, even while sitting immobile he radiated power.”
This is a look at intimacies that do nothing to expel loneliness. Our lady says, “increasingly I’d begun to think the docile surface of the city concealed a more complex and contradictory nature.” The book is layered and has captured the nature of the city and the Court, and indeed, modern life. There might be a veneer of civility, but beneath it the Hague was as complex as any city. Encountering evil in a place that takes great care to present a calm face is unsettling even though the one observing the evil is at a safe remove. In the end she says she felt, “not primarily fear, she felt guilt. I will watch out for books by Katie Kitamura.