Truth is tricky business. Just ask the President of the United States. I finished reading Amitava Kumar’s new novel, A Time Outside This Time, on the day Kabul fell in Afghanistan. The shock of the events leads one to believe that the U.S. was lied to not just by the Taliban, but also some Afghans. Or perhaps intelligence was only led astray, perhaps we misunderstood, or didn’t hear. What is—one wonders—a lie?
It would be interesting to hear what Kumar has to say about the situation. A Time Outside This Time is an experimental meditation on truth. Kumar is interested in how we locate truth in a world of fake news, biased reporting, sketchy world leaders, and within ourselves. The novel itself walks the tight line between reality and fiction, but I’m not sure I’d call it autofiction. The world Kumar unfolds is the very one we live in, documenting news from America and the narrator’s homeland, India, pasting tweets by former President Trump, and interrogating journalism.
The narrator, Satya, is at a writer’s retreat in Italy at the dawn of the pandemic. Satya reads Orwell’s 1984, and he’s working on a novel, “Enemies of the People,” a prototype for A Time Outside This Time, perhaps. Like Kumar, Satya is both a journalist and a writing professor, and so his exploration of the truth roots in his reporter instincts, while his professorship provides connection to a younger generation in America, which plays into the book.
A slow chronology unfolds at the retreat as the coronavirus is first reported in China and soon grows to the point when Satya must inevitably leave and return to the States where he will go into quarantine. This timeline bridges memories and events that all account moments when truth is challenged. Satya’s life as a reporter puts him in suspenseful situations that only his investigative nature would allow. In an early recollection, Satya meets an Iraqi man, Khalid, who immigrated to America in early September 2001 not many days before the attacks on the 11th. Satya is drawn to him. At first, it seems Khalid has been taken advantage of by working small tasks without compensation for the FBI, but then Satya starts to question the story’s truth. In his research, Satya finds an inconsequential lie in Khalid’s story, which raises questions of doubt. Satya, without quite saying it, suspects Khalid of involvement in the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Stories like Khalid’s are gathered for Satya’s book, and they are a thrill to read. Kumar’s prose is magnetic. Using a sparse but intimate telling, Kumar’s writing enraptures the reader with each turn of Satya’s investigations. The approach is interesting because we are in these moments long enough to feel the weight and the risk, we come to bond with the character in the same way as Satya, and then we are quickly whisked away. The vignettes behave like the memories that they are, in and out of the mind.
Perhaps most fascinating is Satya’s relationship with his wife. Vanni is a very left-brained psychologist and she has a study for everything. Their conversations are often substantiated by her mental library of human behavioral studies. These anecdotes are a treat for the reader, but for Satya, they are bloodless. He never quite says it, but one gets the feeling Satya loves his wife more than he likes her for most of the novel. Her work in studying the truth in human behavior plays into Satya’s investigative side, however, and this is the gas running the marriage.
What feels a little strange about this book is its proximity to the pandemic. It wasn’t very long ago that I, too, was cleaning off groceries, and with the Delta variant on the rise, I am still living in the time that Kumar documents. Which is to say, how soon is too soon to write about the pandemic, if ever? In some ways, it seems like this book will be a better read in five, ten, twenty years as its function is to document the time. We are in the novel’s time, however, and we have no perspective. Trump, who occupies a lot of real estate in the novel, is now gone, and we’ve woken up from that nightmare and we drink our morning cup of Joe Biden, but it’s early in this presidency. Between both Trump and the pandemic, we don’t know the results from the time Kumar is concerned with and that is what makes it hard to quite know how to consider the book, even if I enjoyed reading. How will this slice of trauma play out in the future? Only time will tell.
A Time Outside This Time
By Amitava Kumar
Knopf Publishing Group
Published October 5, 2021
Sara Webster is a freelance writer and educator living in Denver, Colorado.