A time outside of this time – when reality goes beyond fiction

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Your reaction to Amitava Kumar’s third discursive novel may depend on the political situation in the country in which you live. A time outside of this time is a novel about America by Donald Trump in which Satya, his writer-narrator, discusses the problems of fake news, right-wing populism and racism.

Reading it in the UK, I felt both relief that Trump has not been in power for almost a year and a fear that I still live under a government that stirs up division. As always, the context in which we read fiction is as important as that of its composition.

The novel opens in early 2020; Satya is at an artists’ retreat in Italy, working on a book about our times, tentatively titled Enemies of the people. When he’s not mingling with other residents at aperitif time, he’s at his desk grappling with questions about the nature of storytelling and how writers should resist authoritarianism: ” Because we only deal with stories, in literature, history or science, the distinction between truth and lies is naïve, ”he writes in his notebook.

Kumar’s novel has little intrigue but it is tightly structured, with Satya’s days in Italy interspersed with stories, essays, and observations from his notebook, as well as his childhood memories in India, where he worked as a journalist (Kumar himself is a prolific journalist and has published several non-fiction books). Satya moved to the United States in the 1990s, but returned to India to research articles, witnessing the corruption, violence against Muslims and the rise of Hindu nationalism that propelled Narendra Modi to power.

One of the most moving passages concerns Farooq, a young Pakistani who was arrested on suspicion of terrorism after September 11, before working for the US secret service. Satya remembers befriending him, writing a long article about him and loaning him money: “I also behaved like the FBI, which produced money. money for Farooq and had forced him to play a part in their story.

Eventually, the pandemic forces Satya to leave Italy and return to America to be with his wife and daughter. In upstate New York, he washes his hands and teaches his literature students through Zoom as the Black Lives Matter protests unfold in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Kumar captures the atmosphere – both flat and memorable – of this time in summer 2020.

Satya quotes Philip Roth on the challenges faced by novelists writing about the news: “News continually surpasses 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 current events into literature, we make sure that daily news does not die of a daily death?

The answer for Kumar is ‘yes’ in a novel that argues, resisting both disinformation and the dogma of fact – and convinces me – that writing and reading fiction is the best way to make sense of our story. era.

A time outside of this time by Amitava Kumar, Picador £ 14.99, 272 pages

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