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Trappings of science-fiction aside, Imraan Coovadia’s A Spy in Time remains a compelling and relevant book, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness: 24/09/2018

IMRAAN Coovadia is a writer who can never be pigeonholed – each new book whizzes off in a different direction. We’ve had everything from laugh-out-loud funny to poignant, with all stops in-between. Here we’re in the realms of time-travelling.

But one thing doesn’t change: Coovadia never wants his reader to get too comfortable or to be able to second guess the writer. Here we have to manoeuvre mentally on the slippery footing of a different world, where the hero can shift from the past – 1955 in Marrakech or 1967 in Rio – to the distant future on Jupiter or the year 2271 in Johannesburg or, finally, to the Day of the Dead in 2472.

That was (or is going to be) when a supernova strikes earth. Enver Eleven, the central figure of A Spy in Time, is member of the Historical Agency whose task is to ensure that catastrophe never happens again. When the supernova struck, a small part of the population made it into the mines deep under Johannesburg where they created their own, not entirely brave, new world of spies, robots and fear. But in the past, present and future, there may be those plotting against the Agency, and Enver’s job is to find them, if they exist.

Enver’s world is one where a white skin is reviled and distrusted, where freedom of expression is curtailed and where questions of whether it should be possible, or permissible, to alter the past and thus change the future are important.

Coovadia is on record as having said that the seed for this novel was sown by the Fallist movement at the University of Cape Town, and his post-apocalyptic vision here, with its lack of trust and bubbling undercurrents of anger and lack of pity is a disturbing one. Of course, Coovadia’s writing always contains elements of humour and they are here too, though perhaps less prominent than in some of his earlier novels.

There are moments when the reader will wonder what on earth, or out of it, is going on in this tale. But the telling of it is compelling and the issues it raises, although cloaked in the trappings of science fiction, are pertinent.

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