Thursday, September 23, 2010

Time's Arrow: or the Nature of the Offense by Martin Amis

Every time I start a Martin Amis novel I feel I'm in for a literary adventure. This is no exception and many consider it his greatest book, having been nominated for a Booker Prize when it was published in 1991 (after London Fields). It is about the Holocaust and the life of a Nazi war criminal (doctor) at Auschwitz, who tried to break away from his horrific background. There is one catch, the book is written in reverse, a veritable "tomb to womb" trajectory. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse 5 is the precursor of Time's Arrow, based on an interview with Amis. Vonnegut's hero watches a World War II movie forwards and then backwards. Backwards, one glimpses Utopia. I have taken good advantage of some very insightful scholars' (James Wood and Brian Finney) comments to be found on Dealing with such a charged subject as the Holocaust, Amis has included an afterword, betraying some nervousness about the subject. Here we learn that the alternative title The Nature of the Offense is attributable to Primo Levi (Auschwitz survivor) and that a key source was the book The Nazi Doctors. It has been said that this book took great literary courage.

The book begins with the "birth" from death into life, of Tod Friendly (auto accident). Note "Tod" means death in German. We travel backwards through time from the country to New York City to the Vatican to Auschwitz. The narrator as homunculus living in the protagonist's brain (his soul, a reverse doppelgänger) seems to have little cognizance that time is running backwards. Yet the narrator is aware that he is inexorably traveling toward the revelation of a dreadful secret. "He is traveling towards his secret. Parasite or passenger, I am traveling there with him. It will be bad" (p. 63). At first, getting used to the reversal of time is a bit exhausting, but very amusing. Going to the bathroom involves sitting on a dirty toilet and sucking up excrement - "Corporeal life is not without its minor indignities. We still take it in the ass every morning, along with everything else" (p. 43). The narrator finds it so odd that Tod's female relations usually start with 15 minutes of shouting, infidelity, and recrimination, followed immediately by sex, the frequency tapers off to just kissing and hand holding and ultimately no interaction. "'s the weird thing about these relationships with women: you get everything on the first date...An hour or two here, max, is all it takes. Oh mercy. You can go up to a woman on a street corner and start yelling at her and ten minutes later she's back at your place doing God knows what" (p. 51).

Food is vomited daily, not ingested. Garbage men spread rubbish across the streets, which is picked up by citizens. Kennedy's assassination is triumphantly transformed into a hero's welcome on his return to life in the streets of Dallas (p.81). When time is reversed, doctors wound, they do not heal. Tod is a physician, as a doctor patients are treated and they leave the office in pain. "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 soon have that off. He's got a hole in his head. So what do we do ? We stick a nail in it" (p. 76). The narrator gradually is demoralised by the hospital setting. "For we, we, we!- we demolish the human body...Here we are in our fatigues, delivering our damage" (pp. 74, 75). This is an intriguing foreshadowing of the inexorable arrival at Auschwitz, where evil is turned upside down.

When Tod moves to New York, he assumes a "new" name, John Young. At one point, the doctor takes a ship across the Atlantic, the narrator notes that "we leave no mark on the ocean, as if we are successfully covering our tracks" (p. 99). Of course, that is precisely what the doctor is doing. An important point becomes clear in the novel - that the narrator retains his memory from the start (Tod's rebirth), but the doctor can't remember anything as none of it has happened yet, his memory is from an earlier time, the narrator's memory never overlaps. We learn this on the ship heading for Europe "John's feeling tone is buoyant: he seems wonderfully relieved" (p. 99). But for the narrator "I didn't get away with it. I came too close...I can remember it all" (p. 100).

Arriving in Lisbon, he changes his name again to Hamilton de Souza. They move on to the Vatican, another name change. His German name is Odilo Unverdorben (p. 111) meaning "uncorrupt, innocent." Before too long they arrive at the Kat-Zet or KZ (short for Konzentrationslager (p. 118). Odilo works with "Uncle Pepi," clearly Josef Mengele. The narrator believes that Unverdorben performs miraculous resuscitations for his Jewish patients at Auschwitz - "Entirely intelligibly, though, to prevent needless suffering, the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive" (p. 121).

Amis' Utopian version of a dystopian event is at the core of the book. According to Wood, "the test of Amis''s capacity to go beyond the mere novelty of inversion - is what he does with Auschwitz. Shockingly, Auschwitz in a backwards world becomes a good place. History flows sweetly from 1945 to 1939, and the Jews are healed in Auschwitz...When Amis' benign Nazi looks at his prospering Jews, and asks, 'Our preternatural purpose ? To dream a race," he means the Jews, not the Aryans. Such ironies are almost unbearable, and yet this is not tasteless - how can it be more tasteless than Auschwitz itself ?...By reversing the narrative, Amis not only moves us with a vision of what might have been in some benign world, but hints also at the very moral delusion of the Nazis. Did not these evil men believe precisely that they were doing good, dreaming a race, turning back history and time ? The Nazis first attempted to turn the Holocaust into a Utopian narrative, not Amis...In moments like this, Amis' novel seems to me to transcend its own virtuosity."

According to Finney "Amis relies on three different perspectives for this section to work. There is Odilo's perverted misinterpretation of the Hippocratic oath. There is the naive narrator's celebration of Odilo's seeming miracles of healing. And there is the modern reader's sinking knowledge of what really went on a Nazi death camps."

The American post-hardcore band Thursday wrote a song called "Times Arrow", based on the novel. It appears on the "Common Existence" album. The Canadian indie rock band The Weakerthans wrote a song called "Time's Arrow", based on the novel. It appears on their 2003 album Reconstruction Site. Both songs can be found on Youtube at the time of this post. Readers may recall Brad Pitt's Academy Award-winning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), but note that in the movie, only BB gets younger while the world still ages.


  1. Thanks David for the book and for the excellent review. I thought the strongest part of the book was when the woman and her baby are revived out of the gas chamber, seemingly still not quite alive, for, as it later becomes clear, the mother possess both the knowledge of imminent death and the guilt of her baby and herself, for not having suffocating it...

  2. thanks for drawing attention to this brief episode appearing on pp. 141-142. What I find most interesting is the "Schh Schh" comment from the narrator. The narrator views the Schh Schh from the adults as a soothing mechanism (after the victims have survived the gas chamber, from his point of view), as opposed to an act of fear and desperation, another consequence of what transpires when time is run in reverse ! He says "I remained alone in the still warehouse, crouched by the wall and listening. Listening ? To the baby's weeping, and to the sound that perhaps the whole planet makes when it tries to sooth: "Schh...Schh" Hush now."