A Separation by Katie Kitamura. Riverhead Books. $25.00, 240pp
To say that a book written in the author’s own language reads like a translation would normally be considered an insult. But this is exactly what Katie Kitamura achieves in her remarkable new novel, A Separation. The narrative voice has an otherworldly and disconnected air—quite unlike the hard clarity of her previous book Gone to the Forest—which is doubly appropriate, as the unnamed narrator is herself a literary translator, and because the story is a report of the search for her estranged husband in a foreign country.
The country is Greece, crucible of democracy and ancient civilization, and contemporary economic basket case. Our woman goes there at the request—demand, really—of her mother-in-law Isabella, who does not know that her son and his wife are no longer living together. “I supposed it would be my last dutiful act as her daughter-in-law. . . . Beneath the unnecessary flourishes of character and the sheen of idle elegance, she was a supremely capable woman, one reason why she had been a formidable adversary, someone I had reason to fear—but that was all over, and soon there would be no battleground between us.” (Not incidentally, this passage shows a masterly control of viewpoint, switching the reader between the character’s past, present and future within a single sentence.) So she flies to Greece in search of Christopher, the husband from whom she has been separated for six months. She doesn’t know where he is staying, but the “supremely capable” Isabella has found that out, and directs her to a hotel on the southernmost tip of the country “with a very nice pool.” She arrives to a hostile environment: wildfires have been raging all summer—“the hills between here and Athens are black”—and furthermore, the hotel staff haven’t seen Christopher for days. Even in their separation, he is missing. Even when she thought she knew, she discovers that she does not.
The narrator seeks help to find him from all the locals she meets. Meanwhile she reflects on her secondary loss, on her suspicions that Christopher was sleeping with the hotel receptionist, and on the memory of an “unhappy expedition” to Glyndebourne opera house with Christopher and his parents, to see Britten’s Billy Budd, which gave her an insight into “the world of men.”
Now, they no longer went away—there was not, at least for most of them, a sea to roam or a desert to cross, there was nothing but the floors of an office tower, the morning commute, a familiar and monotonous landscape, in which life became something secondhand, not something a man could own for himself. It was only on the shores of infidelity that they achieved a little privacy, a little inner life, it was only in the domain of their faithlessness that they became, once again, strangers to their wives, capable of anything.
The style here shows Kitamura’s technique clearly: telling the story by an accumulation of details, piling up clauses one after another, mesmerising the reader with repeated rhythms. She uses non-English structures to strong effect—achieving the otherness referred to previously—and the comma splice in particular. The comma splice—that is, using a comma to separate independent clauses which would better attract a semi-colon or period—is essentially ungrammatical in English, but legitimate and even essential in other languages. Its use here gives Kitamura a range of effects, from accelerated pace as clause follows clause without breathing space, to affecting hairpin bends like the last part of this sentence:
I imagined journeying this far in hopes of a reconciliation, only to find Christopher roaming the countryside, chasing one woman after another, briefly my eyes were full of tears.
This conveys the shocked emotion much more effectively than a traditional recounting would. And as our woman searches for Christopher, she encounters other people, and finds them as opaque as she now understands Christopher to be. (Ah, other people! Little wonder that Martin Amis, when he wrote a novel Other People, subtitled it A Mystery Story.) A receptionist, a taxi driver, a woman who works as a professional mourner: these encounters are “frustrating in the way that watching a film without the soundtrack can be, the mouths of the actors opening and closing but no words coming out.”
This opacity, or at best translucency, leads her to circle ideas and revisit her thoughts, obsessively worrying at things. She fears Christopher’s infidelity—even though they were separated, and she herself had been living with another man, Yvan, for months—because she knows how attractive he was to others. “Christopher was a charming man, and charm is made up of surfaces—every charming man is a confidence man.” (Like the source material for Britten’s Billy Budd, The Confidence-Man is a story by Herman Melville, exploring issues of trust and perception.) Although comparisons are invidious when considering a writer as individually talented as Kitamura, some of these whirlpooling passages bring to mind Javier Marías:
Every romance requires a backdrop and an audience, even—or perhaps especially—the genuine ones, romance is not something that a couple can be expected to conjure by themselves, you and another, the two of you together, not just once but again and again, love in general is fortified by its context, nourished by the gaze of others.
Elsewhere, there is a Marías-like hedging of possibilities, as in a long and impressive scene where the narrator dines with Maria, trying to probe uncertainly whether she slept with Christopher. This can even give a comic effect, such as when she asks about his wedding ring, and Maria describes one which “was hardly decisive but it sounded like Christopher’s wedding ring, or at least it didn’t not sound like it.” When she is with a taxi driver, Stefano, and wonders about how he may have impacted on Christopher’s life, he becomes “suddenly an unknown quantity, a physical mass of potentialities.” A mass of potentialities: this is A Separation in a nutshell.
There is an important plot development midway through the book which would be spoiled if revealed, but it subverts our expectations, driving us from one thwarted plot line to another. What really pulls the reader is the language: its switchbacks, its concealments, its detonations. And just as our woman wonders about Christopher’s faithfulness to her, she reflects on her own requirements of faithfulness as a translator. “The task of a translator is a strange one. People are prone to saying that a successful translation doesn’t feel like a translation at all, as if the translator’s ultimate task is to be invisible.” A Separation and its dizzying, intoxicating explorations of the distances we endure—from the world, from other people, from our own thoughts—is proof that prose needn’t be invisible to be a triumph.
John Self is a book reviewer. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
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