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.