A Coolly Written Novel About Translation Arts and Its Subject ‘Affinities’

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Kitamura pays attention to the dark side of cityscapes, the things we choose not to learn. “There are prisons and much worse all around us,” he writes, “in New York City there was a black area above a bustling dining room, the windows were blacked out and the rooms were soundproofed so that the screams never reached the people sitting below.”

All novels are, in some sense, about language, but “Affinities” put pressure on how meaning is made and how it is reconciled. Kitamura points to chasms that “can open without warning,” which he calls “great chasms under words.”

Skill and poise are important to a translator. If your voice is flushed, so will your interpreter. “It can easily threaten the entire personality of the witness,” writes Kitamura. The author recalls the endurance test, which was a long day of translation. You can become so lost in your work that you are not fully aware of what you are saying, of the terrible crimes you may be describing.

In a way, this novel is about translation. (Nabokov said he wanted to learn a language “enough to understand a whisper behind someone’s back.”) But the real warmth here is, as in Kitamura’s previous novel, “brace” (2017) lies in the author’s endless interest in the intricacies of manpower dynamics.

In his work, there is a winner and a loser in almost every social interaction. Their antennae are fully adapted to magnetism, verbal dexterity, physical beauty and, conversely, their lack.

For example, in the case of the West African president on trial, the narrator feels how the energy in the courtroom is being drawn into the “black hole of his personality.” Few novelists write so strictly about how we misread people and have to renew our assumptions about them as if they were in a web browser.

Kitamura’s narrator is somewhat cryptic. In love, he’s a pushover, so much so that he’s afraid of being “his accomplice in erasure.” Your life flies a millimeter above. She has a concierge level departure.

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