Martin Scorsese drops in

Doha diary, part 2

You see them everywhere you go in Doha, especially in the West Bay area where the festival hotels are located: yellow American school buses. At dusk (which falls in the late afternoon here), the buses line up outside the building sites, waiting for the migrant labourers -- the vast majority of them from south Asia -- who work on the behemoths that will soon be hotels and office blocks. In the shopping malls (which are the main gathering places in Doha, as there's not much public space), long lines of migrants queue to send remittances home to their families.

Expats are integral to the Qatari economy. Although the available figures aren't precise, it's thought they outnumber citizens of the emirate by nearly three to one. The W Doha hotel, where I'm staying, is a case in point. Safak Guvenc, the hotel's manager, who is himself Turkish, told me that he employs people of 62 different nationalities, many of whom live together in a company "village" a 20-minute bus ride away. The majority were recruited by Guvenc and his colleagues in what the company's benignly Orwellian argot calls "talent shows" held in the workers' home countries -- Malaysia and the Philippines, in particular.

I was keen to talk to Guvenc about the "village", but unpicking the hard sell about how the W "brand" fuses the "local" and "global" was difficult, and, in any case, he really wanted to talk about Martin Scorsese, who'd shown up at the hotel for drinks last night. Along with most of the festival "talent", Scorsese is staying at the Four Seasons just along the bay. Having wandered along to have a look at the Four Seasons this afternoon, I can understand why he might have been eager to escape: the principal architectural influence on it appears, from the outside at least, to have been Ceaucescu-era Bucharest. The W building, meanwhile, does watered-down Las Vegas like nearly everyone else.

Scorsese doesn't have a film in the festival. Among the leading American directors who do is Steven Soderbergh, whose film The Informant, which opens in the UK next week, I went to see earlier this evening. Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistleblower at ADM, a pillar of Midwestern agribusiness. The film looks as though it's going to be a standard-issue corporate conspiracy drama (I thought I detected a nod or two in the direction of Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece of Seventies paranoia The Conversation in the title sequence). But then it rather elegantly transforms itself into a psychological comedy, in which the extravagant subterfuges Whitacre perpetrates both on himself (Damon plays him as a genius of self-delusion) and others (including the FBI) turn out to be much more important than the price-fixing scandal that put him in the orbit of the Feds in the first place.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution