A Separation, the story of a dissolved marriage, also asks what links people together. The unnamed narrator promises her estranged husband, Christopher, she’ll tell no one about their separation. But when his mother, Isabella, calls to find out what’s become of him, as she hasn’t heard from him during his research trip to Greece, our narrator begins to question her promise. She goes to Greece to find him but returns without him. He’s gone from her forever, and yet, in his absence, he and his family loom large in her life.
Kitamura weaves a psychological drama not by analyzing and delving into characters but by exploring how the characters don’t know one another. What Isabella doesn’t know about the narrator and Christopher keeps the two women in contact. So, too, between the narrator and the taxi driver she meets in Greece: “the same mechanism of destruction that had operated upon my own life, it was something that we shared… neither of us said anything further” (157). The negative space between them becomes a bond. She is also aloof from her new fiance, Yvan, with whom she is “still waiting” at the end of the book, “for what… neither of us could say” (229). Her inability to act, the persistent questions and inquiry that stall her, rather than what she does, characterize her. Therefore, it is hard to picture her with Christopher, a charismatic and adventurous womanizer (his mother says he “can’t keep his cock in his pants”), who loves to make connections and write about them, but not to get to the bottom of things. His shallowness is at odds with the narrator’s thoughtful and probing tone. She tries, throughout the text, to put her finger on what brought them together; all she knows is what keeps her from severing the last tie: her promise not to tell of the separation.
Just as the narrator asks what attracts her to Christopher, we wonder what draws us to the narrator? We know little about her appearance and scant information about her job as a translator. But we are intimately acquainted with her observations. We see as she sees. We share a perspective, separate, anonymous form each other, but both in position of observer.
In this way, exploring the void between knowing and unknowing becomes a literary as well as a psychological theme. Comparing her situation to that of the Colonel and the Countess in Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, which she has translated, our narrator says, “and so despite the clear differences, life rarely finds its exact likeness in a novel, that is hardly fiction’s purpose, there was a similarity to the situations, a resonance that was the product of the mutual chasm between the letter of the law and the private reality. The question was which to serve, which to protect” (188). Don’t we all read our own lives into novels? Don’t we compare our lives to those around us, in books and in reality? We want to learn from others’ mistakes and successes. And authors capitalize on our desires to know one another, not to exploit, but to inspire new outcomes. Like the professional mourners Christopher researches in Greece, master singers with lugubrious voices, who are paid to honor the dead as laypeople cannot, Kitamura’s carefully wrought prose mitigates our confrontation with others’ private affairs. We are in the hands of an artist. Hers is not an intrusion into her characters lives, nor into our own, rather, an invitation to see beauty in what we know as well as what we will never know.