‘Intimacies,’ a Coolly Written Novel About the Arts of Translation and Power

Kitamura pays attention to the dark side of urban landscapes, the things we prefer not to learn about. “There are prisons and far worse all around us,” she writes, “in New York there was a black site above a bustling food court, the windows darkened and the rooms soundproofed so that the screaming never reached the people sitting below.”

All novels are, in a sense, about language, but “Intimacies” presses down on how meaning is made, and how it is compromised. Kitamura takes note of what she calls the “great chasms beneath words,” chasms that “could open up without warning.”

Skill and poise matter for an interpreter. If you sound flustered, so will the person for whom you are interpreting. One can easily, Kitamura writes, “threaten the witness’s entire persona.” The author evokes the endurance test that is a long day of translating. You can so lose yourself in the work that you don’t entirely realize what you’re saying, the gruesome crimes you might be describing.

This novel is in some senses “about” translation. (Nabokov said you want to learn a language just well enough to “understand the whisper behind one’s back.”) But the real heat here, as in Kitamura’s previous novel, “A Separation” (2017), lies in the author’s abiding interest in the subtleties of human power dynamics.

In her work, there’s a winner and a loser in almost every social interaction. Her antennae are precisely attuned to magnetism, verbal dexterity, physical beauty and, conversely, their lack.

About the West African president on trial, for example, the narrator senses how the energy in the courtroom is sucked toward “the black hole of his personality.” Few novelists write so astringently about how we misread people, and are forced to refresh, as if on a web browser, our assumptions about them.

Kitamura’s narrator is a bit of a cipher. In love, she’s a pushover, so much so that she fears she’s “complicit in my own erasure.” She hovers a millimeter above life. She has a concierge-level of disengagement.

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