Your reaction to Amitava Kumar’s discursive third novel may depend on the political situation in the country in which you live. A time outside of this time is a novel by Donald Trump’s America in which Satya, his author-narrator, discusses the problems of hoax news, right-wing populism and racism.
When I read it in the UK, I was relieved that Trump had not been in office for almost a year, and I was scared to know that I was still living under a government that was fueling divisions. As always, the context in which we read fiction is just as important as that of its composition.
The novel opens in early 2020; Satya is at an artist’s resort in Italy working on a book about our time, tentatively titled Enemies of the people. When not mingling with other residents at cocktail hour, he sits at his desk wrestling with questions about the nature of storytelling and how writers should resist authoritarianism: “Because we are only dealing with stories, in literature, in history, or in science, the simple distinction between truth and falsehood is a naive one, ”he writes in his notebook.
Kumar’s novel has little intrigue, but it is solidly structured, with Satya’s days in Italy mixed with stories, essays and observations from his notebook, as well as his memories of growing up in India, where he worked as a journalist (Kumar is himself ‘ a prolific journalist and has published several works of non-fiction). Satya moved to the US in the 1990s, but returned to India to research articles, witness corruption, violence against Muslims and the rise of Hindu nationalism that dragged Narendra Modi to power.
One of the sections that touches the most is about Farooq, a young man from Pakistan who was arrested after 9/11 for terrorism before working for American intelligence. Satya remembers how she became friends, wrote a long article about him and lent him money: “I also behaved like the FBI, which provided cash for Farooq and forced him to play a role in their story. . “
Eventually, the pandemic forces Satya to leave Italy and return to America to be with his wife and daughter. In New York State, he washed his hands and taught his literature students via Zoom while Black Lives Matter protests unfolded after the murder of George Floyd. Kumar captures the atmosphere – flat and meaningful at the same time – of that period in the summer of 2020.
Satya quotes Philip Roth about the challenges novelists face in writing about current events: “Reality constantly transcends our talents. . . “The character’s solution is to break down the generic boundaries between fiction and journalism: ‘Am I right in thinking that by bringing news into the literature we make sure that daily news does not die a daily death?’
The answer for Kumar is “yes” in a novel that argues, by resisting both disinformation and the dogma of facts – and convinces me – that writing and reading fiction is the best way to make sense of our time.
A time outside of this time by Amitava Kumar, Picador £ 14.99, 272 pages
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