Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

Katie Kitamura – Intimacies

The narrator leaves busy New York after her father’s death for The Hague where she is to work as an interpreter at the International Court of Justice. She befriends Jana whom she had already met in London and who has moved to the Netherlands only a short time before her and who has already made the city her home. She cannot talk about her job outside the Court, not even with Adriaan, her kind of boyfriend who is still married to another woman. Unexpectedly, two major events come together, Adriaan needs to leave for a couple of days which soon turn into weeks and the interpreter is required in a high profile case: a former president of an unnamed African state is accused of crimes against humanity and she is to become the first interpreter. She does not only meet him in court but also when he confines with his lawyers where she sits close to him and can feel the impact and power the charismatic man can have on people. As the weeks go by, she struggles more and more, not only with her absent partner but also with how close she gets to a man who can only be considered a monster.

Katie Kitamura’s novel “Intimacies” invites the reader into the thoughts of an interpreter who knows that the slightest mistake in her translation can have severe consequences. It also highlights the position of a job which is often overlooked but crucial in many ways and where people are forced to retreat behind words which is easier said than done. At times she feels depersonalised, like an instrument, but for the accused, she is the first person of communication.

Many questions are raised throughout the plot, first, the question about belonging. The narrator does not have a place she can really call home. A cosmopolite speaking several languages and having lived in diverse countries, she does not know which place she could actually associate with a feeling of home. Her apartment in The Hague perfectly reflects this: she has rented a furnished place which she never managed to give a personal note.

More importantly, however, is the place of the interpreter. Nobody prepares them for what they are going to hear at the court. The lawyers remain cool when being confronted with atrocious crimes, the interpreters react in much more humane way which can be heard in their voice immediately but which is considered unprofessional. Being often close to the accused over months, they form a very peculiar bond which makes them separate the deeds from the defendants.  

A wonderfully written homage to language and its force, even though there are a lot of things which remain unsaid in the novel.

Robert Harris – V2

After having been hit by a German V2 and her affair with a high rank staff member of the ministry almost exposed, Kay Caton-Walsh, officer in the WAAF, asks to be transferred to directly contribute to the fight against the new super weapon of the enemy. Her wish is granted and so she finds herself with dozen of women in Mechelen, Belgium, where they are trained to calculate the origin of the rockets. These are launched from the Netherlands under the surveillance of Dr Rudi Graf who once dreamt of sending rockets into space and was fascinated by his and his friend Wernher von Braun’s advances in science. But since the Nazis have taken over their skills and inventions, he not only feels increasingly uncomfortable but serious questions what he has done.

Altogether, the V2 killed more than 4,000 people, wounded more than 10,000 in London and Antwerp and destroyed thousands of houses in the British capital. Robert Harris has again chosen a historical topic for his novel which outlines the human character in a complicated world. One might expect the Second World War and the Nazi regime to become finally a bit boring, Harris, however, just as in other books before, turns it into a suspenseful story with interesting characters entangled in the contradictions of their time.

The author addresses several core questions while the novel is fast paced and gripping from the start. The German engineer who never intended his creations to be used to kill people but was fascinated by space travel and what by diligence and an inventive talent could be created. Seeing what has become of his dream, he has to make a lonely decision and to come to terms with his role in the war.

On the other hand, Kay is full of patriotism and ready to risk a lot to participate in the fight against the evil, terrorising missile.  Quite astonishingly, it is a group of women who do the complicated calculations when mathematics were considered the supreme discipline of men. Yet, their competences do not hinder their male colleague from looking down on them. She is also the one in contact with the local population who is torn between the fronts and after years of occupation not sure whom to trust anymore.

Even though the whole plot is centred around the missile, it is the human aspects which render it interesting and thought provoking. Just as in his other novels, a brilliant combination of fact and fiction which is a terrific read and informative, too.

Gerard Reve – The Evenings

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Gerard Reve – The Evenings

It is the 22nd December 1946. In post-war Amsterdam, the 23-year-old office clerk Frits van Egters still lives with his parents. Their conversations centre around the radio programme, reports they read in the newspapers and the question where the key to the attic is. When he is not at home or doing his boring and undemanding office job, Frits spends his evening with his friends around town. Ten days in his life, ten days until the new year arrives and with the new year maybe a new chance in life.

Gerard Reve, who published “The Evenings” (“De avonden”) first under his pseudonym Simon van het Reve, today is considered one of the great writers of post-war Dutch literature. The strength of this novel definitely lies in its detailed description of the family life that the already grown up son has to endure. In the years after the war, life did not offer you much, especially when you did not earn a lot of money. So evening after evening, day after day, it all seems to repeat itself, life is dull and boring. Christmas comes and goes unnoticed, one of the most important Christian celebrations, but in those times, there is no place for such a thing. New Year’s Eve might bring a change – but again, Frits is stuck in the parental home waiting for the clock to strike twelve. He has survived another year, but what does life have to offer that makes it worth living?

Why the book has been praised so much is obvious. Nevertheless, I had some problems with the story. I could not really bond with Frits or maybe the author is just too strong in creating an atmosphere which is not easy to endure. Boredom, isolation, frustration – but that just may have been the reality of many young people after WW2. Without any glimmer of hope, this story is no easy read to enjoy yourself with.