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.