Friday, April 28, 2017

"A Separation" by Katie Kitamura

The narrator of Kitamura's A Separation is a translator, a profession that has little impact on the story itself, but everything to do with the novel's overarching theme: the way we "translate" others' lives into a reality of our choosing, similar to the real people but ultimately clouded by personal bias. And, furthermore, the way we "translate" ourselves into a self we imagine until "the emulation bec[omes] the thing itself" (228).

The theme of A Separation is clear even when the plot is largely missing--intentionally, but perhaps deceivingly so for readers expecting some sort of mystery/thriller (I blame the blurb writer for phrases like "fiercely mesmerizing"). The general plot is that the narrator is on the verge of divorce from her husband Christopher when she gets a call from Christopher's mother, Isabella, who says Christopher has disappeared in a small town in Greece. Isabella is unaware of the impending divorce and asks the narrator to travel to Greece to find Christopher--something the narrator needlessly agrees to. Once in Greece, she's much without purpose: Christopher is no longer at the hotel he was staying at; she's unsurprised to find he's had an affair with a hotel staff member. Not long after, she learns Christopher has been killed (the narrator and the reader never learn by whom), Christopher's parents arrive, and then they leave. The book ends, and the narrator never publicly admits that she and Christopher were nearly divorced.

If any of that sounds exciting or mysterious, let me disabuse that notion immediately. This is not a suspenseful book. The narrator lies--or is, at least, misleading--about her separation from Christopher, but it's not a heart-pounding will-she-get-caught lie. It's an easy lie, a natural lie, the easy way out. Assuming the role of grieving widow is expected of her, and so she (naturally in many ways) becomes that grieving widow.

Much of the novel centers on the narrator's "translating" of the people around her, imagining Christopher's experiences and thoughts, drawing out the relationships between people like Maria (the woman with which Christopher had the affair), and Stefano (a driver who has been pursuing Maria). These thoughts aren't mere fantasy, but Kitamura also seems to emphasize that they're colored by the narrator's understanding and expectations, "stories" to help explain her place in the world.

Ultimately A Separation is a boring book--which I don't mean entirely as criticism--as it's about the way we think and interpret, not about narrative. The story itself is banal, and the prose is so calm and measured that you almost want to kick the narrator into an interjection. It's powerful for what it is, but maybe not enjoyable.

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