Time's Arrow Summary
Time's Arrow follows the life of a German man named Odilo Unverdorben; however, it does so in reverse, beginning with his death and old age and ending with his early childhood and infancy. The book is narrated by an entity that seems to be Odilo's soul, a kind of second consciousness, though it has no access to Odilo's thoughts and no ability to take any action. Because it sees Odilo's life in reverse order, it always interprets effects as causes or vice versa, and destruction as creation. The narrator follows Odilo, who is called Tod T. Friendly when the book begins (in his old age), through several changes in identity and locale, further and further into the man's past, urging us to wonder why the man moves so much and from what he might have been running. As the narrative approaches Odilo's distant past, the narrator feels that life is making more sense than it did in Odilo's old age and that everything in Odilo's life seems to have been designed to prepare him for it: that past includes his life as a doctor in Auschwitz who conducted "experiments" on Jews and was responsible for the torture and death of thousands of people. The narrator, of course, misunderstands this and believes that Odilo is capable of creating life (rather than destroying it) and does so because he genuinely loves people.
To explore the moral horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in a way that would ultimately implicate the reader in a most unnerving immediacy, Amis devised an intricate narrative device in which the narrative is told in reverse, based on the scientific theory, one widely exercised in speculative fiction, that time actually moves backward. The narrative is concise, barely 150 pages, with Amis recognizing the difficulties and demands of such a narrative strategy. To tell the narrative, Amis creates a kind of talking soul that comes into existence at the moment when its host body, a retired German-American doctor in upstate New York named Tod T. Friendly, dies after a car accident. Within this narrative device, this soul acts as a witness-narrator (the voice can only watch and cannot interfere) as Dr. Friendly’s body begins to reengage his life, although this time he lives it backward, moving with furious momentum back to his life as an intern in New York City. At first reading, of course, the reader puzzles (much as the narrator-witness) over the implications of Dr. Friendly’s life: his struggle with alcohol, his dispassionate preoccupation with the human body, his inability to give himself emotionally to his numerous liaisons, and, most disturbing, his grim dreams about babies and children.
The narrator tunes into an inexplicable sense of some ghastly secret that pulls at the events, a secret offense; the book’s subtitle, The Nature of the Offense , is taken from the agonized memoirs of concentration camp survivor and novelist Primo Levi. In deftly handling the intricacies of a reverse narrative, Amis maintains the narrative suspense by developing the sense of foreboding, the sense of imminent revelation, as the doctor boards a ship bound for Spain and from there makes his way through a series of hiding places, even as his German accent becomes more pronounced....
(The entire section is 795 words.)