TIME’S ARROW begins on the American deathbed of an elderly doctor known as Tod Friendly. The rest of the book is an extended flashback; what distinguishes Amis’ novel from the conventional format of biographical retrospection is the fact that the entire story is narrated in reverse. When Tod eats dinner, dessert precedes soup, and food is lifted out of the mouth and onto the plate.
Tod Friendly—whose name signifies the oxymoron of amiable death—is the last of the pseudonyms that Odilo Undverdorben, aka Hamilton de Sousa aka John Young, adopts after fleeing the Nazi defeat in Europe. Abandoning a wife and child in Germany, he establishes a new identity for himself in the United States. Before his abrupt departure, he participates in the gassings and sadistic experiments at Auschwitz-Birkenau-Monowitz.
TIME’S ARROW is narrated by an alter ego of the fugitive Nazi, a disembodied consciousness that comes alive as his double is about to die. As he begins experiencing Tod’s life backward, he has “the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, toward a terrible secret.” And, in the curious chronology by which physicians seem to cause affliction because patients are cured before their visit and ill afterward, he has trouble making sense of anything. It is only when he arrives at the terrible secret, Auschwitz, that Tod’s experience seems meaningful. Seen in reverse, the de-extermination of the Jews, their dispersion out of concentration camps, is perfectly logical.
It is a common refrain in both fiction and nonfiction that genocide defies reason and expression. Amis’ contribution to the vast literature of the Holocaust is the premise that when viewed backward it makes perfect sense. His is a clever conceit that defamiliarizes the Nazi savagery, forcing the jaded reader to encounter the torture and slaughter as if for the first time. TIME’S ARROW magnifies the horror while ostensibly dispelling it.
Source for Further Study
The Guardian. September 19, 1991, p. 25.
London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 11.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 10, 1991, p. 3.
New Scientist. CXXXII, November 30, 1991, p. 55.
New Statesman and Society. IV, September 27, 1991, p. 55.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, November 17, 1991, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, September 6, 1991, p. 96.
The Spectator. CCLXVII, September 28, 1991, p. 37.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 20, 1991, p. 21.
The Washington Post Book World. XXI, October 27, 1991, p. 1.