Views of contemporary fiction: Interpreting what we see

The Proposal or The Man Who Offers Money to a Young Woman by Judith Leyster

The connections we make with other people are based to some extent on what we know about them, which is guided in part by what they show us. The levels of complexity and ambiguity in what we see, whether what we see is what is actually shown, and what we do with it can add up to a lasting or severed connection.

intimacies by Katie Kitamura narrates these connections for a court interpreter in The Hague. The anonymous narrator is adrift after his father dies, his mother returns to Singapore, and New York no longer feels like home. In The Hague, she slowly makes a friendship, thinks pleasant thoughts about her colleagues, and meets a man. At an art event, early in their relationship, a man who knows him tells him that Adriaan is married and tries to come between the new couple and claim her. It doesn’t work out, but the interaction between the three is fiercely emotional and yet calm and civil at the same time.

That tone, and the delicate balance between surface civility and deep underlying emotions, is the hallmark of this short, much-admired novel (it was named to President Obama’s list of favorite books and the National Book Award).

Our narrator’s work as an interpreter and her understanding of that role sustains the interaction between all the characters, especially as she attempts to interpret what people are showing and saying to her. In his work, “there were great gulfs between words, between two or sometimes more languages, which could open up without warning.”

They are not just words; they are also actions that can be observed, but perhaps not clearly or from the wrong angle, as when our interpreter sees three men slowing down the street in a strange way. He notices that two of them are picking up cigarette butts littered all over the streets of what appears at first to be a clean city, while the third follows them vacuuming up the little bits of trash.

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The author shows how we interpret what we see in other aspects of life. The interpreter’s friend introduces her to another friend. This new woman is the sister of a man who was brutally assaulted near the first friend’s apartment. This man, and what the interpreter sees him do, are open to more than one meaning, until the truth sinks in.

The interpreter is also assigned to the trial of a would-be dictator who is responsible for the murder of many people in his country. Of course, the dictator’s behavior is never that of an evil monster, and the ambiguity about what people are capable of while appearing as something else is striking. Complicating the interpreter’s job is the new lead defense attorney, who is the man who attacked her lover and tried to cheat on her at the art event. His actions are sometimes strange and there is little ambiguity about his character.

The lawyer is a bit like the man in a real painting who is described in some detail as the performer views it during another art exhibit. “Man Offering Money to a Young Woman” by Judith Leyster is a painting from the mid-1600s, created by a woman in her 20s. The man hovers over a woman who is working on a sewing project by hand. His look can be seen as arduous, according to the author, or smug. The woman looks scared. The money in your hand isn’t obvious at first, but it’s there. He is treating her like an object of commerce. The other title of the painting is “The Proposal”.

The painting operated around a schism, it represented two irreconcilable subjective positions: the man, who believed that the scene was one of ardor and seduction, and the woman, who had been plunged into a state of fear and humiliation.

More than one man in Intimacies uses women as objects of desire, of acquisition, as beings not even important enough to kill. Not all women are sincere in what they pursue, and not why. This is represented more as an observation of the breadth and depth of human nature, rather than a judgment that some people are mostly good and others are mostly not. It is also an observation about our world, as seen while riding a bus past The Hague security prison:

But none of us is able to really see the world we live in, this world, occupying as it does the contradiction between its banality (the squat wall of the Detention Center, the bus that runs along its ordinary route) and its extremity (the cell and the man inside the cell), is something we see only briefly and then don’t see again for a long time, if ever. It is surprisingly easy to forget what you have witnessed, the terrifying image or the voice speaking of the unspeakable, to exist in the world we must and forget, we live in a state of knowing but not knowing.

As the trial draws to a close after months, the interpreter points out that the reporters who covered the opening and stayed away until the end will use pieces to form a narrative:

They had mere fragments of the narrative, and yet they would stitch those fragments together into a story like any other story, a story with the appearance of unity.

This is exactly what the interpreter does as she watches the people she interacts with. It is written dispassionately, much like the author points out that an interpreter or translator works, in the sense that the person doing this work is trying to stand apart while accurately conveying what is being communicated.

Jumping to conclusions early in the novel before the revelations don’t work. This is especially true in the ending. It was an unexpected ending and joyous to behold. “Just connect” indeed.

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