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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Time's Arrow is a novel about human cruelty, in which the story is told backwards in time. Odilo Unverdorben (his surname ironically means "unspoiled," or "uncorrupted" in German) is a Nazi doctor whose life is narrated in reverse, from the present (the novel was published in 1991) where he has been living under a false identity in the United States, back to World War II and thence ultimately to his childhood and even his pre-birth.

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Martin Amis's novel thus has something in common with Fitzgerald's "Benjamin Button"; although, in Fitzgerald's story we have a man born old who physically becomes younger over time. Unverdorben does not do this, but his life is narrated in reverse by a kind of Doppelganger presence, beginning with the doctor, at the start (or finish) lying in a state of almost complete paralysis on a table and being examined by physicians. We then learn the details of his life in the US, where he's succeeded in creating a respectable position for himself, though privately maintaining a lifestyle in which his amorality and corruption are dominant. Eventually we learn of his earlier escape from Europe through bribery and his former life as a physician at Auschwitz carrying out the mass murder of the prisoners, as well as the events leading up to the war from his birth apparently in the year 1916.

In any analysis the primary question would be: why is the story told through this time reversal, and what is the significance of the narrative method? In my view there are two basic answers. First, the backwards time sequencing seems a metaphor for the irrationality and insanity of life, as if to emphasize that life in correct order makes little sense with its randomness and cruelty, so one may as well tell it in the opposite direction. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the point appears to be that humanity fails to judge itself and its capacity for evil until after everything has been completed. In the closing paragraph of the book we learn what this Doppelganger narrator is, or what it symbolizes:

We're away once more, over the field. Odilo Unverdorben and his eager heart. And I within, who came at the wrong time--either too soon, or after it was all too late.

Thus the narrator is his heart, the thing the outward man has lacked, and the only entity that has any feeling or understanding of the crimes Unverdorben has carried out. On the first page of the story, which is essentially the terminus of Unverdorben's life, he is helpless, being examined by doctors, just like the prisoners he himself examined, experimented on, and killed in the death camps.

Time’s Arrow

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646

Time’s Arrow, or, The Nature of the Offense begins in a Massachusetts hospital on the deathbed of a seventy- five-year-old doctor known as Tod T. Friendly. The rest of the book is an extended flashback to the life he is departing, but what distinguishes Amis’ eighth novel from the conventional format of biographical retrospection is the fact that the entire story is narrated in reverse, effect preceding cause, later coming before sooner. The entire short book is a novelistic form of palindrome. On an inspection tour to Treblinka, the narrator of the story notices that the hands of a clock in a railway station are painted to a permanent 13:27—“But time had no arrow, not here.” Otherwise, though the book opens with an assertion of circularity (“What goes around comes around”), Time’s Arrow is shot in a straight line, backward. When Tod eats dinner, dessert precedes soup, and food is lifted out of the mouth and onto the plate. A toilet becomes the seat of a peculiar ritual in which fecal matter rises form the bowl and into the bowels. Sanitation workers deliver garbage, and adults snatch toys away...

(The entire section contains 2412 words.)

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