Analysis

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Time's Arrow is a novel about human cruelty, in which the story is told backward 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.

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. Odilo does not do this, but his life is narrated in reverse by a kind of soul-like 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. There is also insight into 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? There are two potential basic answers. First, the backward 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. It estranges human behavior and makes us question why it is we do certain things. The technique makes the familiar seem quite strange, almost creepy and wrong. 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 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 not his heart, but perhaps some semblance of morality. It is the internal conversation with oneself that Odilo cannot access. This is the thing the outward man has lacked, and the only entity that has any feeling or concept of the crimes Odilo has carried out. On the first page of the story, which is essentially the terminus of Odilo's life, he is helpless, being examined by doctors, just like the prisoners he himself examined, experimented on, and killed in the death camps.

It is important, too, to consider the significance of the title: Time’s Arrow. Perhaps this story answers the age-old question of “what if we could go back?” Though Odilo and the narrator do not go back in time to change anything, the narrator has the unique experience of returning to what has already happened. It is as if the arrow of time has been pulled back into the bow.

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