A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar’s review – #fakenews onslaught | fiction

HHow should writers react to the noise and fury of the current political moment? With the times frequently producing more spooky and fantastical dramas than even the most gifted novelist could imagine, how can literature compete? The solution proposed by the American journalist, author and professor of Indian origin Amitava Kumar is not to turn away from the daily outrage of the news and #fakenews but to embrace it. By engaging in an “activism of the word”, this scholarly, original and ultimately unsatisfying book intends to oppose the “radical surprise of real life” to the “lies of the rulers”. In this way, Kumar hopes to “preserve the uncomfortable or disturbing truth from the incessant and widespread assault.”

We can be sure what this novel is trying to do, because it keeps telling us. He does this through his narrator Satya, an American journalist, author and professor of Indian origin who attends an artists retreat on an Italian island which “would be where George and Amal Clooney spend their summers”. Satya is working on a novel called The Enemies of the People which, he says, is based on a false story – in fact, “on the many false stories that surround us ”. The plot of A Time Outside This Time, as it stands, includes a collage of newspaper clippings, tweets, and anecdotes that Satya has put together – as well as summaries of psychology articles he has read and read. of the journalism he conducted on the subject of truth and lies. .

Instead of “what used to be called a bourgeois novel” – dismissively glossed over as “the human heart in conflict with itself and so on” – Satya / Kumar serves up a torrent of name and information checks. A future reader would find in this book a sort of time capsule of the Trump years: through it pass not only Donald (and Ivanka) but Hillary Clinton, Sarah Silverman, Anthony Fauci, George Floyd, Narendra Modi, Marina Abramović and Tina Fey (“Oh, Tina Fey“). Here you can learn more about the Dunning-Kruger effect, the Milgram experiment, the marshmallow test, VS Naipaul’s meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini, Gandhi’s contact with the Spanish flu, and the involvement of the father of George Orwell in the opium trade in the Raj. There are more intimate sections, such as flashbacks to Satya’s childhood memories of the anti-Muslim riots in India and descriptions of his newspaper commissions on men and women caught up in the oppressive networks of India. the state. But it is all recounted in the bloodless prose of a Washington Post editorial: “He was dead five years later,” one character reads, “of a heart attack, as he went with him. his wife in a restaurant. It was a sad event.

When, at the start of the book, Satya declares, “to be honest, I thought I had a grip on the truth,” I wondered if his claim to write an anti-bourgeois novel before happy hour in a villa by a lake with the summer Clooney nearby was a devious trick. Perhaps – as one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short-sighted and emotionless narrators – he would become more and more entangled in his misperceptions and self-deceptions until his worldview was overturned. An early detour, in which he discovers more than appears in the story of a Pakistani migrant trapped by the American police, seems to promise it. But as the novel progresses, the “radical real-life surprise” is increasingly – and surprisingly – absent. Satya is a good husband to a good wife, a research psychologist named Vaani whose only real purpose in the story is to tell him about experimental cognitive studies which he summarizes at length. Later, we find out that she has an ex-husband who hosts a Fox News-type show on Indian TV, conveniently offering Satya the opportunity to lecture against the rise of nationalist bigotry under Modi.

“Any good novel,” Satya reminds us, quoting historian Timothy Snyder, “invigorates our ability to think about ambiguous situations and to judge the intentions of others. But sincerely wanting to dramatize ambiguous situations and the intentions of others is not the same as doing it. In fiction, all the information in the world – whether true or false – does not replace the vivid representation of the character, relationship, interiority, etc.

A Time Outside This Time is published by Picador (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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