When I visited Paris recently, more specifically the iconic bookshop Shakespeare and Company, I had a list in mind of the books that I wanted to buy. Katie Kitamura’s A Separation was one of them. The book had received favorable reviews on the blogosphere and naturally it piqued my interest. So when I was browsing the shelves in this Parisian bookstore, I suddenly came upon this book and pounced on it.
Did I like it then? Yes, very much so.
The book is narrated in the first person; a woman but not named. In the opening pages, the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law Isabella asking her the whereabouts of Christopher (Isabella’s son). The narrator does not know. Indeed, she and Christopher have separated but they have decided to not reveal this to anyone; not yet. Naturally, Isabella does not know of their separation either.
We come to know that Christopher took a trip to Greece to research material for a book he is writing. Isabella wants the narrator to travel to Greece and find him. The narrator feels she has no choice but to go.
I supposed it would be my last dutiful act as her daughter-in-law. An hour later, Isabella called to tell me which hotel Christopher was staying at – I wondered how she had obtained this information – and the record locator for a ticket she had booked in my name, departing the next day. 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.
In the meanwhile, she decides that once she meets him in Greece, she will ask for a divorce. After all, she has now moved on and is also in a relationship with Yvan, Christopher’s friend.
Once she reaches Greece, she heads to the remote village and the hotel where Christopher was supposed to be staying. He has not checked out but no one seems to know where he is. The narrator decides to wait for a few days for him to return.
Greece, in the meanwhile, is in the midst of an economic crisis. Unemployment in Athens is high and the people in the villages see no point in migrating to the city.
In this remote village, forest fires have raged and blackened the earth. The environment is as scorched and dried as the narrator’s marriage.
As she roams around the village while waiting for a meeting with Christopher, the narrator throws some light on him and their marriage in particular. It turns out that Christopher is a wealthy and very charming man prone to having affairs. One such affair was with the hotel receptionist, Maria. Maria in turn is loved by Stefano, the hotel driver, who takes the narrator around for sightseeing.
We come to know that Christopher was writing a book on the mourning rituals in Greece.
It was a strange project for a man who had hitherto lost nothing of significance, whose life was intact in all its key particulars. If he had cause for grief, it was only in the abstract. But he was drawn to people who were in a state of loss. This gave the people the mistaken impression that he was a sympathetic man. His sympathy lasted as long as his curiosity, once that had gone he suddenly withdrew, making himself unavailable, or at least less available than people might reasonably have expected, given the sudden and violent intimacy he had forced upon them in the first place.
The narrator meets Stefano’s mom who practices these rituals and whom Christopher may have met too.
The ancient practice was rapidly dying out. There were only a few parts of rural Greece where it was still practiced, the southern Peloponnese, a region called Mani, was one of them. There, every village had a few mourners – weepers or wailers, as they were sometimes called – women who performed the funeral dirge at a village burial. What intrigued him about the practice was its externalization of grief: the fact that a body other than the body of the bereaved expressed its woe.
Indeed, the more the narrator interacts with Maria, Stefano, or Stefano’s mom, she realizes that they have been as opaque and inscrutable as Christopher.
The book then is a meditation on infidelity, grief, loss and the possibility that we may not really completely know the person we are married to.
Our marriage was formed by the things Christopher knew and I did not. This was not simply a question of intellect, although in that respect Christopher again had the advantage, he was without doubt a clever man. It was a question of things withheld, information that he had, and that I did not. In short, it was a question of infidelities – betrayal always puts one partner in the position of knowing, and leaves the other in the dark.
Kitamura’s prose is detached, but dreamy and lush as she unravels the story entirely through thoughts flashing through the narrator’s mind. There is a rhythmic quality to her writing as she slowly peels off the layers so that more revelations come to the fore.
Does Christopher come back? Or does his disappearance remain a mystery? I will not reveal that. Whatever the case, A Separation is a remarkable novel composed in a dizzying language and one to savour slowly like good wine.