Your reaction to Amitava Kumar’s discursive third novel may depend on the political situation in the country you live in ... Reading it in the UK, I felt both relief that Trump has been out of office for almost a year and dread at knowing that I still live under a government that stokes division. As ever, the context in which we read fiction is as important as that of its composition ... Kumar’s novel has little plot but it is tightly structured, with Satya’s days in Italy intercut with stories, essays and observations from his notebook, as well as his memories of growing up in India, where he worked as a journalist ... 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 times.
This is the sort of novel where even the characters’ names are preeningly literal ... The problem with Satya’s crusade against misinformation is that too often he is just passing on breaking news alerts. The truths he espouses are factual, not emotional. Vaani is blandly introduced as a psychologist who “lives in the world of experiments.” Husband and wife seem to talk about nothing but research models of cognitive behavior ... Satya’s earnestness is grating ... He has convictions, but no precision, and the story doesn’t remotely test his beliefs. In the absence of self-revelations, there isn’t much to keep you turning the pages ... The book reads like a mash-up of two genres: autofiction and the post-apocalyptic novel. Except that the apocalypse here is just the news, which Satya follows online from the safety of the villa, and later, when lockdowns are enforced everywhere, from his house in upstate New York. Kumar writes supple sentences, but Satya’s reflections are too vicarious to sustain interest. His provocations aren’t startling enough; his thoughts can quickly lapse into a trite but well-meaning op-ed. You can’t help feeling that the novel lacks precisely the humanity that Satya demands from our leaders, an inherent and sometimes disquieting proximity to other lives.
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 ... 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 ... 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.