‘Johannesburg, the first and last city of our century’: Read an exclusive excerpt from Imraan Coovadia’s new novel, A Spy in Time

Many case officers liked to take a tablet to turn white, believing that it made the job easier. I think Shanumi Six was too proud of her skin to take half measures.

The JRB is proud to present an exclusive excerpt from Imraan Coovadia’s Afrofuturistic new novel A Spy in Time.

A Spy in Time
Imraan Coovadia
Umuzi, 2018

The award-winning author chatted to The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec about his new novel elsewhere in this issue. 

A Spy in Time is billed as ‘an original dystopia set in a futuristic Johannesburg where white people have been a rarity for centuries’.

Read an excerpt:

Shanumi poured out two portions of absinthe from a bottle on the table and diluted them with soda water. She offered me one of the glasses. I couldn’t make out her expression as she peered into the radiant green water. In the many months I had been under her supervision I had never managed to figure out what made her tick.

It may have been that Shanumi Six liked to stay in character as much as possible, which made her difficult to understand in the present. At the Agency, she was noted for using the hyper-traditional methods of the case officer. Her handwriting, her accent, her very gestures were practised daily in front of an ancient television set. She liked to prune the bonsai tree on her desk with one hand while studying her case files. It had been the gift of a famous Japanese painter of the Edo period.

I brought the glass to my lips and hesitated. ‘I have a question for you, Shanumi. I watched the recording again.’ ‘Why are we risking our own black skins when the Agency has observational devices in position?’

‘That’s not exactly my question. I agree that we cannot simply turn history over to the machines. Otherwise I would have chosen a different line of work.’

‘Otherwise, to be exact, we would have to rewire every machine in existence from top to down. Even the consultants, mighty as they are, have to work through us because of the safeguards.’

I tried the contents of the glass and shivered at the aniseed taste. ‘But do they ever explain why in general?’

‘Why what, my young friend?’

‘What the bigger picture is, I mean. Why are we following this person rather than that one? How is watching a minor figure like Muller supposed to lead us to the main enemy?’

I could see that my question had made Shanumi im- patient. To my disappointment, she finished her drink and got up to go.

‘Everybody who survives focuses on his or her part of the task, no more and no less. Focus and concentrate. No grand fantasies, mind you, about finding the main enemy on your first assignment. When the time is right for our adversaries to show themselves, I am sure they won’t neglect the opportunity. Now, if you don’t mind, I will excuse myself. I like to be alone the night before I go out.’

I tried not to let the rebuff get to me. I finished my drink and remembered the legendary patience of S Natanson who had started the Agency in an underground laboratory near Kitwe where he’d framed many of the doctrines which guided us centuries later. I remembered the supernova so few had survived. Then I left the empty trailer. The heavy metal door closed silently behind me.


In the evening I went straight to sleep in the dormitory, the fan turning on the ceiling above the row of empty beds. I had the sensation, when I was fast asleep, that my sister was sitting on the next bed and trying to attract my attention. She had a voice like a flute, just as I remembered. But I didn’t understand the words she was forming. They floated through my dream, unwilling to slow down and reveal their true contents. Nor did she reply when I asked her to explain. She continued to talk, a flow of sounds, then wrote on the palms of her hands. She raised them to me, demonstrating they were blank.

The memory was with me at four in the morning when the alarm went off. As I made my way through the vacant halls, past the concrete reactor cone, and down the long shaft to the departure suite, I was still involved in my dream.

My Six was in the nude, packing her toiletries in a travel bag without even a towel around her waist. I undressed in the corner, hung my clothes in the locker. The bar lights on the ceiling were harsh, as if somebody had doubled the voltage. Shanumi didn’t speak but led the way into the shower, her arms folded underneath her breasts, the muscles rippling on her ebony back.

Many case officers liked to take a tablet to turn white, believing that it made the job easier. I think Shanumi Six was too proud of her skin to take half measures. She couldn’t imagine being an albino even for a day. I had adopted the same policy in tribute to her. And to be honest I didn’t want to imagine what life was like when the mere fact of your pale complexion made you a secret object of fear and resentment.

The steam and hot water gave way to a shivering minute under an ice-cold bucket. Shanumi turned here and there in the spray, sending water everywhere, before ducking out to dry herself. She didn’t look away while I washed myself.

When I got out she was in a friendlier frame of mind, ready to talk.

‘I watched Gone with the Wind last night. It must be the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen it. Do you happen to know it?’

‘Never heard of it.’

Shanumi passed the electric discharger over her body.

She parked it on the table for me.

‘You should see it, Eleven. I should have made you see it as a condition of your education. Scarlett O’Hara is a spectacular woman. I watched Lawrence of Arabia as well. The twentieth century had actors and actresses. They didn’t rely on acting algorithms or fantasise about digital actors. For all its cruelty, I find the old world sympathetic for that reason alone. You know that I work from intuition first of all. It’s the mood, the feeling that gets into you from what is on the screen. You need that before you arrive in person.’

‘Getting into character.’

‘If you want to call it that. The past is a foreign country and it is a country of the imagination. A case officer, in a foreign country, lives in her head first of all. Most of what happens, on an assignment, happens in her head.’

Shanumi examined herself in the mirror, holding her breath for a minute. She went on: ‘In the field people will look at you. I guarantee it. Maybe they haven’t seen a black man who holds himself in a certain way. Maybe they haven’t seen a black woman like me. Maybe they want to provoke you. Maybe it’s nothing. The best policy is to tell yourself that you’re imagining it and go about the assignment as you have seen it unfold. That’s how the black child was raised.’

Shanumi Six finished changing while I used the discharger on myself, wondering what I could do with this piece of advice. I never had to worry about standing out in Johannesburg. I ran the discharger over my arms, my chest, along my feet, and up to my belly. The tingle started just below the skin. It crackled in the nerves in my teeth and left the taste of ozone in my mouth.

The velvet line of the steriliser ran the breadth of the room, completing the cycle. In conjunction with the universal serum, the sterilising process suppressed the myriad germs, bugs, fleas, and flies, microscopic fungi and algae which we carried on our persons.

It wasn’t unpleasant. After the shampoo and discharger, you were left smelling delicately of camomile. I sensed it on myself as I changed into the outfit provided by the costume department—dungarees and a short-sleeved shirt. I smoothed the locket away beneath the collar of the shirt, picked up the satchel which had been prepared. After many years of training, I was looking forward to being in the field.

Above our heads the city of Johannesburg, the first and last city of our century, ticked with radiation. The catacomb city. Its reef, honeycombed with a hundred thousand miles of mining tunnels, had been our salvation in the days of the supernova.

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