Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

On Saturday I finished Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. If anyone remembers from last year I read Amis’s House of Meetings and think it might have been the very best book of 2007, so I was very excited when a friend of mine recommended Time’s Arrow to me. She described the novel as unique and unique is exactly right.

Time’s Arrow moves backward. And not like most reverse novels which have forward moving sections that go backward in time, section by section. In Time’s Arrow, everything is in reverse. Letters are ‘born’ out of fire or garbage cans, death is actually an act of creation, doctors do damage to patients who have come in looking healthy and well. The book is genius. And short enough that this distinctive narrative stance doesn’t become too exhausting.  

The point-of-view structure of the book adds wonderful texture. It is narrated in the first person, by Tod or Hamilton or Odilo, depending on the period of his life, but at the same time it is in the third person. The narrator is writing about himself but with a forced disassociation. What results is two layers of consciousness, a spliced version of “my life passed before my eyes”. Our narrator feels that this backward movement is all wrong which helps mediate it for the reader. But he also misinterprets almost everything about the story which makes us feel for him as we read along. 

You want to know what I do? All right. Some guy comes in with a bandage around his head. We don’t mess about. We’ll have that off. He’s got a hole in his head. So what do we do. We stick a nail in it. Get the nail – a good rusty one – from the trash or wherever. And lead him out to the Waiting Room where he’s allowed to linger and holler for a while before we ferry him back to the night.  

Time’s Arrow is the story of one man’s life – in reverse, from the moment of his death to the moment of his birth. He is an extraordinary man who takes on successive identities as we follow him back in time, from Tod Friendly, a reputable doctor near Boston, to Odilo Unverdorben, a Nazi physician at Auschwitz. The peculiar inverse linearity of the novel twists and challenges our understanding of his life’s acts. Especially when we finally arrive at the concentration camp.  

It is a commonplace to say that the triumph of Auschwitz was essentially organizational: we found the sacred fire that hides in the human heart – and built an autobahn that went there. But how to explain the divine synchronies of the ramp? At the very moment that the weak and young and old were brought from the Sprinkleroom to the railway station, as good as new, so their menfolk completed the appointed term of labour service and ventured forth to claim them, on the ramp, a trifle disheveled to be sure, but strong and sleek from their regime of hard work and strict diet. As matchmakers, we didn’t know the meaning of the word failure; on the ramp, stunning successes were as cheap as spit. When the families coalesced, how their hands and eyes would plead for one another, under our indulgent gaze. We toasted them far into the night. 

Amis’s atypical rendering of the timeline emphasizes the actual horror of what happened. And the reversal of Tod’s acts as a physician in Boston (harming people) compared to his work as a Nazi doctor (healing people) presents an uncomfortable reality. The two layers of consciousness run in opposite directions – the Tod being described who spent his entire life moving deliberately away from his past as a Nazi doctor but the Tod telling the story who is racing, unaware of what’s awaiting him, back into that terror. The tension created from these opposing realities is simply overwhelming. 

Definitely a book I will go back to again and again.

12 Responses to “Martin Amis – Time's Arrow”

  1. Litlove

    Ooh you are a brave and fearless reader, verbivore. I might be able to admire this, but I don’t think I could stomach it. Brilliant review, however, and one that gives me more pleasure to read than the book would.

  2. Ann Darnton

    Had I read this even as short a time as two weeks ago I would have probably just passed it by because Amis is a man who has annoyed me considerably over the years. But then by accident a few days ago I heard him talking on the radio and instead of automatically turning off, stopped and listened to what he had to say. Now, I don’t know if he’s mellowing or if it’s me that’s changing, but a lot of what he said made sense. So, given that and given that I very much respect your opinions, I shall go back to Amis and try again.

  3. Smithereens

    I remember reading it early last year (I posted a review). I found the literary trick really incredible and very creative, but it really felt like a trick after a while. Plus, I don’t think it’s really suitable to tackle such a grave subject as the Holocaust using such a biased way. At the end, the book left me some mixed feelings. But I would recommend anyone to try it, at least for the experience.

  4. Bellezza

    Verbivore, I hope I didn’t accidently erase your address if you sent it to my email account. In any case, I don’t know where to send your prize from the Japanese Literature Challenge, so please email me at bellezza.mjs@gmail.com so I can ship it to you. Thanks!

  5. verbivore

    Litlove – I don’t know about brave and fearless, but the idea made me smile. I think you might be surprised at how easy the book was to stomach, something in the way the POV is managed. It was challenging but not gruesome.

    Ann – My only other experience with Amis comes from some of his New Yorker short stories and in all honesty I didn’t like them. Then I read House of Meetings and loved it. REally loved it. I’d heard other opinions similar to yours and I suspect if I read some of his earlier work I might really dislike it and him. But I’m happy these last two experiences have been so interesting.

    Smithereens – It’s interesting to hear you say that the trick got old. I would say that I became a bit too aware of it by the end of the book, which might be the same thing. But there were still these incredible moments when the voice and the technique worked for me. I was very glad the book was so short, otherwise I don’t think it could have sustained it. I also agree with the mixed feelings – its a hard book to analyze because I think you could read it a number of ways.

    Bellezza – thanks, I will resend it!

  6. Stefanie

    I’ve got this book on my TBR list because I’d heard it was interesting but I didn’t know just how interesting. Great review. Now I really want to read it!

  7. verbivore

    Stefanie – I’d love to know what you think of it when you do read it!

  8. Elizabeth

    Great review — great book. Good point about the book being short. The story races along so that I always had the feeling of not quite catching up.

  9. verbivore

    Elizabeth – you are absolutely right, the story really does race along. I found myself needing to slow down and read more slowly than I usually do to make sure I wasn’t missing anything or even just to enjoy some of the more unusual descriptions. I also had to read all the dialogue twice, once forward and once backward, just to make sure I understood what was really going on.

  10. davidbdale

    Hello, verbivore. I read this book several years ago and will never forget its audacity or the degree to which it succeeded. Regarding the perfectly reasonable comment of Smithereens that the subject matter is inappropriate for literary games (I hope that’s a fair characterization), I want to agree but I can’t. I thought it was inappropriate for Roberto Benigni to use the Holocaust material to make Life Is Beautiful, and it makes me a little sick just to say “use the Holocaust material,” so I’m torn, but I don’t think the Holocaust was Amis’s subject at all. How does one write a book about the Holocaust? One doesn’t. One writes a book about how impossible it is to write a book about the Holocaust.

  11. verbivore

    Hello David – I like the way you juxtapose the books audacity with its success. I heartily agree. And your comment about the subject matter is a good one. I also struggled with that. Amis was able to make me very uncomfortable about his project. But if I want to be honest about my beliefs regarding art, I don’t think any subject is really out of bounds. His novel asked me to participate in a specific story, to consider a particular individual, to experience a certain (fictionally-created) reality – I willingly agreed. And don’t regret it at all. I would say the same about Benini.

  12. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Great review – thanks! I’ve just finished Time’s Arrow and I agree that it’s a fantastically interesting rendering of the Holocaust. For me, the atrocities took on a new and unusual poignancy – a great achievement when one considers how often the Holocaust has been discussed.

    My review: Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

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