Review: A Time Outside This Time by Amitava Kumar
At Amitava Kumar’s A time outside of this time is an extremely meta novel about current events in the age of propaganda and lies.
Like Kumar, Satya grew up in Patna and teaches at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic is just beginning to shut down the world, Satya is working on “a novel about reading the news” during an artists’ retreat in Italy. Satya enemies of the people is “a report from the world of #fakenews” – interchangeable by description with the Kumar novel in which it is contained. Kumar even shares his work with his protagonist. A stranger carrying a tiny bomb in the crook of his arm, Kumar’s 2010 non-fiction book questioning the consequences of the US War on Terror, is here attributed to Satya. In this plotless, amorphous novel, which seems only very loosely framed by fiction, I found myself forgetting about Satya almost entirely as he merged with Kumar. I read this novel primarily as non-fiction, part journalism, part cultural criticism, which I guess is kind of the point Kumar (as Satya) is trying to make: “I don’t know not what category the book I’m writing will be put in. That’s part of the confusion of our times.
Satya, through her novel, wants to find answers to the question: Who among your neighbors will look away when an authority figure comes knocking on your door and puts a boot in your face? A time outside of this time is essentially an investigation of research, memory, reporting and art to interrogate compassion, betrayal and the unstable boundary between reality and fiction.
All of this is brought together in a small section about a Pakistani man who was an informant and translator for the FBI. Satya had been meeting him for several months for a profile. It’s a fascinating short story in the novel – this former FBI informant who even went on a mission to Afghanistan, fearing deportation from the United States, had married a white American and was a college graduate when he met Satya. They develop a sort of friendship over the interviews – he borrows money from Satya, sends his wife to his family who found it too expensive to keep her (they had to bring McDonald’s to the Pakistani countryside for her), but his memory is fishy and his stories change, his wife has another version, but they all still make sense, or maybe not (can memory ever be entirely truthful?)… It’s such a convoluted mess, even delicious, I would recommend the book just for that.
However, throughout most of the book, Satya quotes from George Orwell 1984, which he reads and reflects on famous experiences. Milgram’s experiment (which shocked the world by showing that most people would obey the instructions of an authority figure, even if it meant harming another person), I learned, is incorrect and incomplete. Further research has shown, for example, that if there are two authority figures who disagree, the percentage of participants willing to be equally cruel drops to zero, Satya says. There’s the Dunning-Kruger effect (people think they’re smarter than they really are), lying research (which he uses to explain Trump), a whole host of experiments on monkeys . It talks about Marina Abramović’s best-known performance, Rhythm O, in which she stopped and invited the audience to do whatever they wanted to her using one of 72 objects arranged on a table. They were gentle at first, but turned deadly. One of the participants pointed a loaded gun at his temple. But another had pushed him away. “I think Abramović ended up with a question similar to the one I started this book with at the end: will the person standing next to the one who is doing you so much violence step in to To a lesser extent, that’s exactly what happened during the performance,” Satya concludes, offering quiet assurance in his quest for truth.
In a flashback to her childhood, Satya remembers that when it was raining, there was nothing you could do but wait. In this illusion of the permanence of the rain, he finds wisdom: “We cannot imagine — I cannot imagine, sometimes — a weather outside of this weather. The people in power must also be deceived enough to believe this… The powerful will not wait for it but that time will come. This will mark the beginning of their loss, their end.
A time outside of this time is a time capsule. Kumar (as Satya) reviews the major events of 2020 in India and the United States. Some of it, like the anecdotes from the first months of the pandemic – the agony and loneliness of it – struck me as hard to read. Everything happened; it’s too early for nostalgia, too painful to remember. But it is a gift for future generations.
Saudamini Jain is a freelance journalist. She lives in New Delhi.