The one thing you can say for sure about Katie Kitamura’s wonderfully sly new novel – the follow-up to her 2017 breakthrough A Separation, and one of Barack Obama’s summer reading picks – is that it offers a portrait of limbo. The unnamed narrator, a Japanese woman raised in Europe, has accepted a one-year contract as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court – identified only as “the Court” – in The Hague. The book’s title – which, like that of its predecessor, rejects the firmness of the definite article – refers to the relationship one might ideally have with language, spaces, customs, other people, one’s own emotions, the past. It’s unclear, at least at first, to what degree the character’s own failure to achieve this state herself is a product of temperament or circumstances – whether she is simply adjusting, or whether this is how she always presents, and negotiates, the world.
Another possibility is that tussling with the intricacies of human communication in a strange environment is just what life is like. (A Separation also concerned a translator in a foreign land, in that case the Peloponnese, where she goes in search of her estranged husband.) “Uncanny”, the term Freud used to denote a range of uneasy sensations, literally means un-home-like (unheimlich). It’s no surprise that the narrator may feel this way about The Hague. But she admits that one of the reasons she moved there was because New York, her previous base, “had become disorienting to me”. You’re forced to wonder: is there such a thing as the non-uncanny? Early in the novel, the narrator observes that “everything becomes normal after a time”. But by her own account, this is totally untrue. Various phenomena – speaking other people’s words as if they were her own, the regular greeting she receives from a former African president – retain their weirdness or “wrongness”.
Achieving this atmosphere of persistent disquiet is largely a matter of rhetoric – of lists and “or” constructions, and adverbs like “notwithstanding”, “regardless”, “nonetheless”, and “yet”. The narrator refers to her “natural inclination” towards “extreme precision”, but Kitamura seems sold on the virtues of vagueness, the necessity sometimes of refusing to address things directly. She is one of the few writers – TS Eliot in his prose was another – who can use the words “somehow” and “something” without prompting the thought: “Try harder”.
The fear is that the novel’s insistence on the murky or multiple will lose its power as a verbal resource or a governing concept. How many times can we read that something is one thing and another – “both serious and tongue-in-cheek”, “both guarded and vulnerable”, authentic and artificial, brazen and impersonal, a joke and “not a joke”? On one page, we read, “Was it mere politesse or was it something more sinister, more calculating and exploitative?” On the next: “I couldn’t tell if he was more subdued than usual, or if it was merely the projection of my own tension.” A paragraph reflecting on the idea of a decade begins by calling it “a long time” and ends by saying it “was not very long”. And so the novel risks becoming one-note – even if that note is saying that the one-note doesn’t exist.
But Kitamura keeps enough balls in the air to maintain variety. A trial involving the African leader develops in tandem with the narrator’s agonisingly precarious courtship with a man named Adriaan, who claims that his wife has left him and moved to Lisbon, but then disappears for an extended period. An attack on a prominent book dealer, at first raised in passing, gathers prominence when it emerges that the narrator’s friend, a black British woman, is connected to the victim’s twin sister. And there’s alway the slipperiness of the novel itself – the aesthetic suspense generated by seeming at one moment like a mood piece and the next a novel of ideas, now like an enquiry into the costs of modern rootlessness, then a parable about the human condition. At times it resembles a thriller or ghost story in which the bogeyman is the true nature of things. Even the novel’s potential status as a rehabilitation narrative, which emerges towards the very end, is challenged by the early admission that New York had stopped feeling like home – the countervailing hint, right there in the opening paragraph, that a hard-earned victory like a sense of arrival, or the achievement of intimacy, may recede or undo itself, and you’re obliged to start all over again.
Katie Kitamura Jonathan Cape 230pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor