Last Updated 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.
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.
Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212
In this novel about the Holocaust and its aftermath, the British author Martin Amis apparently criticizes both Germany and the Unites States but not his own country. On one level, Amis uses principles of Absurdism and Existentialism to question the meaning of human life in a world of incomprehensible evil. The central character, who initially seems a Candide-like innocent, has no memory of the atrocities he committed. Beginning the novel as an elderly patient whose profession was physician, his reconstruction of memory works backward; he is mentally rather than physically recovering.
Having apparently enjoyed the benefits of a doctor’s life in the bland, materialistic postwar United States, Dr. Friendly is unable or unwilling to reflect on his earlier activities in Nazi Germany. As his backward memory run continues, he confronts his role as torturer and murderer in Auschwitz, but does not stop there. His apparent justification for his actions lies in contemplating his state of pre-war innocence. Through the unreality of the premise, Amis seems to encourage re-evaluation of individual and collective behavior. Many critics questioned if Amis—born after World War II ended—added anything meaningful to our understanding of an era that has been deeply probed by survivors and descendants of those who perished; some accused him of appropriation.
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 from children. “Good-bye” initiates a conversation; “hello” terminates it.
Amis toys with inverting individual words and sentences—“Aid ut oo y’rrah?” says a pharmacist to her customer, who deciphers more effortlessly than the reader this topsy-turvy universe’s reordering of “How are you today?” The narrator concedes “that most conversations would make much better sense if you ran them backward.” They at least seem less banal. Amis does run them backward, but, after a few initial flourishes, the novel makes do with a normal verbal sequence in the service of recounting statements and actions in reverse chronological order. Time’s arrow is shot form target to bow.
“Tod Friendly”—the name signifies the oxymoron of amiable death—is the last of the pseudonyms that Odilo Unverdorben, also know as “Hamilton de Souza” and “John Young,” adopts after fleeing the Nazi defeat in Europe. Before his abrupt departure, he participates in the gassings and sadistic experiments at Auschwitz. Abandoning a wife and child in Germany, he initially settles in Lisbon. In 1948, at the age of thirty- one, he establishes a new identity for himself in the United States.
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. While the patient is pulled from the brink of extinction by the force of retrospective narrative, another consciousness is born, a doppelgänger puzzled by the identity to which he finds himself yoked. As he begins experiencing Tod’s life backward, he has “the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, toward a terrible secret.” It is this historical innocent, a modern Candide, who tells the story, and he is more puzzled than the reader about where it is headed. “It just seems to me that the film is running backward,” he declares. Even in flashbacks, cinema has no tense but the present, and Time’s Arrow, too, lacks the privileged perspective of the preterite. It wants the comfort of temporal distance between awareness and event. Its narrator—and its reader—is the puzzled spectator of an unmediated life that is in the process of revealing its secrets.
After backing off his deathbed, Tod becomes increasingly active as he grows younger—even as his name changes from Friendly to Young—with each successive page. The inverted course of his career takes him from Massachusetts to New York to Portugal to Italy to Poland and Germany and through several assumed identities. As Odilo Unverdorben, his latest/earliest name, he marries a German named Herta, but marriage and fatherhood do not deter him from sexual exploits. Irene, one of many women he beds in America, surmises his secret before the narrator does. The narrator does not know quite what to make of cryptic comments on the weather sent once a year to the doctor from New York, but the reader suspects that their author, who calls himself the “Reverend Nicholas Kreditor,” is a Nazi sympathizer who is eager to keep his confederate safe from the clutches of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Forced to accompany Friendly/Young/de Souza/Unverdorben back over baffling ground, the reader is frustrated. “When is the world going to start making sense?” asks the narrator, just before it does, in the fifth of the novel’s eight chapters.
In the curious chronology by which physicians seem to cause affliction because patients are cured before their visit and ill afterward, the reader has trouble understanding the point of anything. It is only when Tod arrives at his terrible secret, Auschwitz, that his experience seems meaningful. Nothing before or after—as far back as his birth in Solingen, where Adolf Eichmann, too, was born—seems as purposeful as his role in the Holocaust. As a protégé of “Uncle Pepi,” a Mengelesque demon of death, Unverdorben—whose name is German for “innocent, pure”—tortures and terminates the camp’s hapless inmates. The reader recoils in horror, but the narrator is relieved that, at last, the world at least makes sense. Seen in reverse, the de-extermination of the Jews, their dispersion out of concentration camps, becomes perfectly logical. Described in detail is the happy process of removing victims from mass graves, restoring gold fillings to their teeth and breath to their lungs before transporting them back to the homes from which they were wrenched. Further on, Unverdorben’s idyllic courtship of Herta coincides with the lifting of restrictions on Jews.
“But this was our mission, after all: to make Germany whole,” concludes the narrator, who, in retrospect, does. “To heal her wounds and make her whole.” Seen in reverse, Unverdorben pursues the ambitious and laudable project of creating the Jewish people. Rather than a mass murderer, the Nazi executioner becomes a demiurge: “Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire.”
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—and only when—viewed backward it makes consummate sense. Nothing else in Unverdorben’s fugitive days does. Projected backward, doctors routinely cause, rather than cure, illness and pain. “Put simply,” says the narrator, who sees patients enter healed and emerge sick, “the hospital is an atrocity-producing situation. Atrocity will follow atrocity, unstoppably. As if fresh atrocity were necessary to validate the atrocity that came before.” In contrast to the hospitals where Unverdorben works incognito after fleeing the Nazi defeat, the concentration camp restores life, health, and meaning. “The world, after all, here in Auschwitz, has a new habit,” marvels the narrator. “It makes sense.” By comparison, the postwar America in which he takes refuge is seen as a puzzling but pleasant place, a land of the bland.
Money: A Suicide Note (1984) and London Fields (1989)—outrageous lampoons on the decadence of modern civilization—established Amis, who is the son of author Kingsley Amis, as the enfant terrible of contemporary English fiction. Time’s Arrow is another tour de force, and Amis has been criticized by some for appropriating the Holocaust, one of the most dreadful events in history, for his literary showmanship, as though the bravura of the book were an affront to the memory of the murdered six million. Writing in The Spectator, Julie Burchill faulted Amis for attempting to “perform a party trick on a mountain of skulls.” Others have taken offense at what they regard as his cynical attempt to trivialize atrocity in order to produce a clever book.
Discomfort with Time’s Arrow is a more pointed version of an old complaint: that the Holocaust was such ineffable horror that any artistic appropriation of it is a sort of sacrilege. To impose literary form on and derive aesthetic pleasure from the Nazi crematoria strikes some as grotesque in a way that dramatizing the anguish of Oedipus and Lear does not. Yet to declare the most traumatic of human experiences off-limits is genuinely to trivialize art, to reduce it to the mere picturesque. The alternative that Amis offers to tracking evil backward is living in an American Lethe—“washing-line and mailbox America, innocuous America…affable, melting-pot, primary-color, You’re-okay-I’m-okay America.” The terse, pointed narrative of Time’s Arrow is an antidote to historical amnesia, and Amis’ use of reverse narration is more than a stylish stylistic gimmick. It is an ingenious conceit that defamiliarizes the genocidal 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. The novel also obliges one to savor the strangeness of the world outside Auschwitz. “It’s all strange to me,” says the narrator, alter ego not only for a Nazi fiend but for the reader as well. “I know I live on a fierce and magical planet, which sheds or surrenders rain or even flings it off in whipstroke after whipstroke, which fires out bolts of electric gold into the firmament at 186,000 miles per second, which with a single shrug of its tectonic plates can erect a city in half an hour.” What awesome and awful secrets are exposed when one surveys this world from omega to alpha!
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 110
Sources for Further Study
Dern, John A. Martians, Monsters, and Madonna: Fiction and Form in the World of Martin Amis. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Time Runs Backward to Point up a Moral.” The New York Times, October 22, 1991, p. C17.
Keulks, Gavin. Martin Amis: Postmodernism and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Locke, Richard. “The Past Recaptured, Crab-Style.” The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 1991, p. A7.
Truehart, Charles. “Through a Mirror, Darkly: Martin Amis Wrote a Novel in Reverse and Brought the Holocaust Full Circle.” The Washington Post, November 26, 1991, p. B1.
Vice, Sue. Holocaust Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2000.