Last Updated on September 6, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652
What Goes Around Comes Around
The most obvious theme of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow is stated as the title of the first chapter: "What goes around comes around." The Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorben is shown in a state of almost total paralysis in the moments before/after his death, lying on a table and being examined by physicians. In other words, he is in the same state of helplessness as the prisoners at Auschwitz whom he experimented on and murdered nearly fifty years earlier. His final moments in this life, though they are the first moments that the narrator experiences, are without Odilo’s agency. He has no say, no control, no expertise despite being a doctor—however horrific—himself. This is a more explicit parallel to the harm Odilo has caused. On another note, Odilo has spent his life after World War II and his role in the Nazi concentration camps tortured by his actions. He lives in constant fear and shame that he will be found out. He must move around, hide out, and change his name so that he is not suspected for his part in Auschwitz. The Jewish people that Odilo massacred lived in this kind of fear, too, though they were afraid despite having done nothing wrong but exist. While Odilo was not punished as he should have been, he lived a terrible life full of pain. He inflicted horror and was haunted by it forever.
The Irrationality of Life
The key to the major themes lies partly in the fact that the story is told in reverse, narrated by a passenger-like consciousness who has no agency. We see first Odilo’s life under an assumed identity (Tod T. Friendly or John Young) in the US, then his arrival in the US in 1948, then his extermination of prisoners in Auschwitz, then finally his youth, childhood, and even pre-birth. Arguably this reversed narration is emblematic of the irrationality of life. Things actually seem to make more sense, in a way, if told backward. In some way, this purges life of its cruelty and decay. At Auschwitz, the prisoners come back to life, released from the gas chambers. The corruption of adulthood gives way to the innocence of childhood and the greater innocence of the womb. This also goes to show that suspense can be built from both foreshadowing and post-shadowing. It is clear from the beginning of the story that Odilo is haunted by something that has already happened, but it is something that neither the audience nor the narrator knows of yet. Just as Odilo is anxious and fearful of the future, he is haunted by the past. There is no real sense to be made.
The Failure to See Human Error
Throughout the novel, human beings fail to see their errors, and their crimes, until they have been committed. It is Odilo's "soul" that narrates the story, which is presented in a kind of dreamworld in which waiters pay their customers and an abortionist implants a fetus into his patient. Only the soul has been able to understand Odilo's crimes, by seeing them in reverse. Due to the reverse nature of the story, the soul believes that Odilo is—finally—doing “good” work when he reaches Auschwitz. From the entity’s perspective, Odilo is putting people back together somehow. Before, in Odilo’s later life as Tod, he inflicts “torture” by inserting nails into people or undoing their stitches (medical procedures done in reverse). The narrating entity is, of course, off base. Odilo has, in fact, committed terrible atrocities and was beneficial to the patients later in life. The soul-like being does not see this. It is unable to see Odilo’s true crimes. Thus, human error goes misunderstood and therefore excused. Given the surrounding context of World War II and the Holocaust, Amis has posed deep and unsettling questions about what human beings can do.