Katie Kitamura Translates the Untranslatable – The New York Times

Reading, too, can be a deeply interpretive act, and a novel like this one offers the reader much to work with, raising a chorus of harmonic questions rather than squealing a single answer. Contemporary American novels too often deliver pre-solved moral quandaries and obvious enemies in service to our cultural craving for ethical perfection — the correct word, the right behavior, the sole and righteous position on myriad complex issues.

Kitamura works outside of this trendy literality by knowing, as the best writers do, that a story’s apparent subject does not determine its conceptual limits; plot summary would do this book no justice. Though the words “emotional labor,” “feminism” and “colonialism” never appear, it is still deeply engaged with these grand social issues, while it also makes subtle comments on everything from art to jealousy to gentrification.

Still — an ungenerous reader might note the male object of affection and assume the story is about a lonely woman’s search for love, simply because the narrator is slightly directionless and waiting for her Dutchman to come home. It is true that “Intimacies,” like Kitamura’s previous and equally engrossing “A Separation,” scrutinizes the knowability of those we love, depend upon and sleep beside. Yet Kitamura investigates these relationships as a lens for larger points, not as an end in themselves. The path a life cuts through the world, this book seems to say, has its greatest significance in the effect it has on others.

“Interpretation can be profoundly disorienting,” the narrator reflects, “you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken first by the subject and then by yourself, that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: You literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses its meaning.”

This disorientation might feel familiar: In a time when so many intimacies have been forced or foreclosed by quarantine, this novel is felicitous. Breath itself, that intimate air, has united our worlds in death and fear. Even global events — a pandemic, a protest, a war — arise first in the delicate space between people.

The sinister man on trial “is petty and vain but he understands the depths of human behavior. The places where ordinary people do not go. That gives him a great deal of power, even when he is confined to a cell.” Kitamura’s work also contains a keen understanding of human behavior, one that reaches far beyond the pages of this brief and arresting book; she travels to places that ordinary writers cannot go.