We don’t know much about our protagonist. All we do know is that she’s somewhat of a rootless individual, who has recently moved to the Hague to translate at the criminal court. Despite the first-person perspective and the intimacy of seeing the world through her lens, we don’t even find out her name.
She’s unsure of the Hague, a place with a shiny veneer that conceals a darker underbelly. But she makes a friend, art curator Jana, and begins an affair with a married (separated) man, Adriaan. There’s something compelling about her, and all we come to know about her is through her emotionally astute observations of the world she inhabits.
As an interpreter, she has a keen awareness of the vagaries and complexities of language. She finds herself interpreting on behalf of a former president on trial, a warlord from an unnamed developing nation responsible for ethnic cleansing and mass murder. As she spends hours each day as the vessel through which his horrifying testimony passes through, it’s as if the horror of what she’s describing is lost in the act of interpreting it.
‘…Interpretation can be profoundly disorientating, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act, in trying to maintain utmost fidelity to the words being spoken…that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying. Language loses meaning.’
She keenly feels the responsibility of her role, the necessity of conveying the testimony in a truthful way. As the accused unnervingly tries to build rapport with her, she reflects on her job to ‘make the space between languages as small as possible’. She determines that she will not ‘obfuscate the meaning of what he had done… there would be no escape route between languages.’ It is important that he has his day in court, even as she recognises the disproportionate prosecution of African war criminals as those in the West are overlooked. There is an uneasy, unwanted intimacy between them, as she speaks his words for the court to hear day in and day out.
And in her personal life, there is an absence of closeness. Caught up continuously in her own head, she asks herself whether Adriaan will return from his extended visit to Lisbon, ostensibly to finalise his divorce, as she remains in his apartment, alone. She’s an intriguing, enigmatic character – I hestitate to add that despite this she is not the tortured millennial protagonist of much contemporary lit fic – and much of what we learn about her is through her own churning over of her intimate thoughts.
Not unsurprisingly, for someone who writes in such a highly-attuned way about language, Kitamura’s writing is brilliant – incisive, taut, saying so much without trying too hard. I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoyed this as much as I did – vaguely plotless novels aren’t really my thing – and I think it has to come down to the writing style, which makes it hard to put down. Her crafting of an atmosphere of unease, her ruminations on the nature of language, her navigation of gendered power dynamics – it all packs a real punch in this slim novel.