The anonymous heroine of Privacy, the fascinating and mysterious new novel by Katie Kitamura, observes that “none of us are able to see the world we live in – the world, occupying as we do the contradiction between its banality … and its extremity “. She is a new interpreter in The Hague, responsible for the banal function of translating legal proceedings for extremely wicked defendants: former genocidal heads of state.
We only know that the narrator arrived in The Hague via New York, her father has just died from a long illness and her mother has returned to Singapore. Even his age and ethnicity are murky and, strangely, rarely commented on. Kitamura appears to be intentionally testing the limits of how little biographical information an author can reveal about a protagonist while still making the reader feel intimately connected with him.
Readers will get a sense of both the importance and the futility of the International Criminal Court. The narrator points out that the Court mainly pursues crimes against humanity in African countries, thus becoming an “ineffective” instrument of “Western imperialism”. Regarding the building in which the Court is located, the narrator observes “the modern architecture still seemed incongruous, perhaps even devoid of the authority that I expected”.
When the narrator has to interpret for an African head of state accused of enforcing Sharia law and numerous crimes related to the persecution of women, Kitamura describes the process of admitting the accused as an exercise of several hours of bureaucratic drudgery. The narrator observes curtly: “I even forgot who I was expecting, only that I was expecting someone who might never arrive, and that I might never leave this hall. The accused and the narrator develop a Hannibal Lecter / Clarice Starling dynamic, with the narrator simultaneously attracted and repelled by the accused’s ruthlessness.
Outside of work, the narrator wants what anyone who moves to a new city alone wants: friendship and love. She gets involved with Adriaan, a married father finalizing a divorce. Shortly after they met, however, he left for Portugal. The narrator cannot say if he left to rekindle his marriage or define the terms of the separation. As she remains alone in Adriaan’s apartment for weeks, their relationship reduced to a series of sparse and laconic texts, her insecurities grow.
As Adriaan is gone, the narrator develops a fascination with an elegant art historian named Eline and her charismatic and disabled brother Anton. The narrator’s description of her job reflects her interactions with these new friends: “We performers were just extras passing behind the central cast and yet we walked cautiously, we felt like we were under observation. . Kitamura makes the narrator an extra in the lives of Adriaan, Eline, Anton and others. They are named; she is not. And yet the narrator is the character we’re meant to feel most intimate with. We actively observe her hiding, as she reveals every thought and feeling with an abundance of discretion. She is so wary that I started to wonder: exactly Did Adriaan and others find it attractive about him?
In the melting pot of a war crimes trial and a seemingly doomed relationship, the mysterious narrator gradually crumbles. When her boss in The Hague offers to renew her contract, she hesitates and begins to cry on the spot. His loss of restraint seems to be a major moment in the book, but why? Will she finally come to terms with her father’s death, her mother’s abandonment, Adriaan’s desertion, her inability to develop lasting friendships in a new city, or all or part of the above?
I couldn’t help but want a more open and reckless narrator, someone who is more than, as the accused puts it, “a part of the institution that [she] to serve[s]. “The novel effectively comments on the elusiveness of intimacy, but perhaps at the cost of the reader’s emotional connection to the narrator. How much of what is actually revealed helps one understand a situation – or a person -” more intimately? Even journalists covering the International Criminal Court “only had fragments of the narrative and yet they would assemble those fragments into a story like any other story, a story with the appearance of unity.” The novel de Kitamura has its own appearance of oneness, but ultimately illustrates how his interpretations may not help them see the world they live in.
Leland Cheuk is the award-winning author of three fiction books, most recently No Good Very bad Asian. His writing appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and Salon, among other points of sale.