Book Review: Time’s Arrow or The Nature of the Offence by Martin Amis
“He is traveling towards his secret. Parasite or passenger, I am traveling there with him. It will be bad. It will be bad, and not intelligible. But I will know one thing about it (and at least the certainty brings comfort): I will know how bad the secret is. I will know the nature of the offense. Already I know this. I know that it is to do with trash and shit, and that it is wrong in time.” – Narrator
Time’s Arrow begins with the death of its protagonist but it wouldn’t seem that way at first glance. The first line, which is sort of an epigraph for the first chapter, goes like this:
I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors… American doctors.
Reading it now, I’d like to place an emphasis on the phrase “moved forward”. The phrase, and the sentence as a whole, looks inconspicuous enough. There is nothing special about it because the reader may just perceive it as a man waking from a hospital, perhaps from an accident, and that is why the doctors surround him. Then the story slowly begins to reveal itself. He isn’t in a hospital, he’s in a nursing home. Finally, weird stuff begins happening: he seems to be getting healthier and younger, people are walking backwards, and conversations do not make sense because they are being spoken backwards. At this point, the reader begins a gradual realization with regards to the ultimate conceit of the book. I for one decided to go back to the first page and read it all over again in order to grasp the nonlinear narrative of the novel and shed light on its crevices. It is in this way that, despite the novel’s slimness, it is still rich and deep.
Time’s Arrow is about the life of a man told backwards in time, from his death to his birth. We begin in an American suburb where he comes to “life” and subsequently gives “life” to the narrator who, we will learn a few pages later, is separate from the man whose consciousness the narrator now inhabits. The narrator has no control over the protagonist, now named Todd Friendly, but he has a limited access to his consciousness so he is able to feel what Todd feels. The duo goes through life backwards: they eat backwards, they make love backwards and they make love backwards. Even the dialogue, the readers are informed, is spoken backwards and the narrator does not understand it until he figures it out and translates them forward. The character Todd, we find out later, is a doctor who due to the novel’s nonlinear narrative injures people instead of healing them. A healthy and pleasant person comes into his office only to come out solemn and injured a few moments later.
But the question is does Time’s Arrow unique structure have anything to do with the overall plot or is it just a gimmick to tell an otherwise boring story? The answer is, of course, no. It may not be apparent at first because roughly half of the book is concerned with a man who is constantly moving from place to place, changes his name with each new city, and who has frequent nightmares about babies. The narrator, who only inhabits Todd Friendly’s consciousness but does not have access to his mind and memories, considers these as signs that Friendly has a dark past. By the second half of the book, we learn that this dark secret is connected to the Second World War particularly the Holocaust as it is revealed that Todd Friendly is one of the Third Reich’s Nazi doctors who facilitates concentration camps.
At this point, the narrative structure of the novel transforms from a gimmick into a necessary device to explore the warped psychology of the Nazi. In the narrator’s point of view, what they were doing in Auschwitz was just. As the narrator puts it:
“What tells me that this is right? What tells me that all the rest was wrong? Certainly not my aesthetic sense. I would never claim that Auschwitz-Birkenau-Monowitz was good to look at. Or to listen to, or to smell, or to taste, or to touch. There was, among my colleagues there, a general though desultory quest for greater elegance. I can understand that word, and all its yearning: elegant. Not for its elegance did I come to love the evening sky above the Vistula, hellish red with the gathering souls. Creation is easy. Also ugly. Hier ist kein warum. Here there is no why. Here there is no when, no how, no where. 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.”
Thru the eyes of our narrator and Todd Friendly, now known as Odilo Unverdorben, we see the flames of crematorium give birth to dead Jews who are then revived in gas chambers then given hair, bathed, clothed, reunited with their respective families, and finally herded into trains to settle them in various ghettos across Europe while they wait to finally be relocated their own villages and cities to assimilate to the life of their non-Jewish countrymen.
Here Amis shows the reader that only a Nazi’s warped mentality can picture the Holocaust as a just cause. Only in the reverse world that the narrator inhabits does the Holocaust make sense which is precisely why, Amis posits, the Holocaust is an incomprehensible act of genocide that does not hold water in the real world no matter how Nazis seem to justify and rationalize it.
Time’s Arrow is a brilliant and sublime novel, the best novel about the Holocaust that I have ever read. I believe that this is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the subject or for anyone who appreciates virtuosic writing. In Time’s Arrow, Amis extends or at the very least acknowledges the limits where literature can take us by telling the story of one of the darkest moment’s in history. In one part of the novel, Amis acknowledges that there are fixed moments in history, dark moments, and they can be told from different perspectives, in different styles:
“Probably human cruelty is fixed and eternal. Only styles change.”