Once in a while comes a work of fiction that tells an extraordinary tale set in extraordinary times. Reading A Spy in Time one is entertained and provoked into thinking that perhaps this is the novel of African time travel that one has been long waiting for with bated breath. Many a year of drought have gone by unnoticed and with this novel, the skies have opened up with torrents gushing through the arid landscape.
In Enver Eleven’s city, fair-skinned folks are an accident of history—that’s the way Johannesburg has been down the ages.
Those who have stayed on here scour the shelves in the shops looking for skin-darkening creams to hide their affliction. It is the only place that survived the end of the world when a supernova hits the earth, helped in no small measure by the numberless mining tunnels that run in the subterranean ground below.
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A spy for the Historical Agency has his task cut out ab initio: to ensure that such a cataclysmic never occurs again. In a free-wheeling narrative, Enver and his mentor, Shanumi Six, travel into a world freed for the constraints of the Sandman; they look for the faceless enemy bent on hatching a plot against the Agency and in theory—only in theory—they could ensure to make it so that if an enemy had existed, it could be made to appear as if one had been swept away in an epidemic or had been gone to a monastery to be sequestered, never to be heard of again. It could simply make a man vanish, as if into the blue.
Later Shanumi disappears while on assignment, even as Enver finds himself caught up in the vortex of a conspiracy that moves back and forth between John le Carre and Ray Bradbury. Enver has to clear himself of the charge of being a double agent. The problem is as complicated as the colour of his skin in a place where it has almost gone extinct. In another place, in another remote corner of the planet, the Maoris call the white man ‘Pakeah’ or the beached whale. Couched in his dazzling language, Imraan Coovadia takes the reader to the edge of the old age question: if you were able to go back into the past, could you possibly tweak the future to be able to produce the desired result?
The prose is scintillating, with a deceptive simplicity. Take for instance: ‘Possibly script was as difficult to read as algebra, even the limited set of characters that a case officer was required to handle. The letters danced this way and the other turned inside out and roundabout in front of my eyes, until they reluctantly settled down.’
Of course there is Enver Eleven’s precious description after his Time machine deposits him in Rio De Janeiro: ‘Weathered stone office buildings groaned in the humidity, green plants growing out of every crack in the walls. Small cars and taxis, as flat as tin cans, shot impatiently through the traffic lights.’ Coovadia throws you into a blender of time and space where for company you have the travels (and trials) of Enver Eleven. All said and done, the novel is a good staccato read.