Time's Arrow (novel)
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|Preceded by||London Fields (novel)|
|Followed by||The Information (novel)|
The novel recounts the life of a German Holocaust doctor in a disorienting reverse chronology. The narrator, together with the reader, experiences time passing in reverse, as the main character becomes younger and younger during the course of the novel. The narrator is not exactly the protagonist himself but a secondary consciousness apparently living within him, feeling his feelings but with no access to his thoughts and no control over events. Some passages may be interpreted as hinting that this narrator may in some way be the conscience, but this is not clear. The narrator may alternatively be considered merely a necessary device to narrate a reverse story.
Amis engages in several forms of reverse discourse including reverse dialogue, reverse narrative, and reverse explanation. Amis's use of these techniques is aimed to create an unsettling and irrational aura for the reader; indeed, one of the recurrent themes in the novel is the narrator's persistent misinterpretation of events. For example, he simply accepts that people wait for an hour in a physician's waiting room after being examined, although at some points he has doubts about this tradition. Relationships are portrayed with stormy beginnings that slowly fade into pleasant romances. Although the narrator accepts all this, he is puzzled and feels that the world does not really make sense.
The reverse narrative begins in America, where the doctor is first living in retirement and then practicing medicine. He is always fearful of something and does not want to be too conspicuous. Later he changes his identity and moves to New York. (Considering the story forward, he escaped Europe after the war and succeeded in settling in America, with the assistance of a Reverend Nicholas Kreditor who apparently assists war criminals in hiding.) In 1948 he travels (in reverse) to Portugal, from where he makes his way to Auschwitz.
The doctor, Odilo Unverdorben, assists "Uncle Pepi" (modelled on Josef Mengele) in his torture and murder of Jews. While at Auschwitz, the reverse chronology means that he creates life and heals the sick, rather than the opposite.
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. (p119-120, Vintage edition, 1992)
In the reversed version of reality, not only is simple chronology reversed (people become younger, and eventually become children, then babies, and then re-enter their mothers' wombs, where they finally cease to exist) but so is morality. Blows heal injuries, doctors cause them. Theft becomes donation, and vice versa. In a passage about prostitutes, doctors harm them while pimps give them money and heal them. When the protagonist reaches Auschwitz, however, the world starts to make sense. A whole new race is created.
Amis first thought up the idea of telling a man's life backwards in time two years before the novel was published. He found a fertile ground for that structure when his friend Robert Jay Lifton gave him a copy of his book, The Nazi Doctors, about the involvement of German doctors in World War II, from Action T4 to the extermination camps. The alternative title for the novel is taken from Primo Levi's The Truce:
So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of pudency, so that we would have liked to wash our consciences and our memories clean from the foulness that lay upon them; and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever... Because, and this is the awful privilege of our generation and of my people, no one better than us has ever been able to grasp the incurable nature of the offense, that spreads like a contagion. It is foolish to think that human justice can eradicate it.
Themes and structure
As in the French film Irréversible (2002) and American film Memento (2000), the technique of reverse chronology accentuates the importance of the trauma on which the narrative is centred: the narrator is constantly baffled by his environment, yet knows that he is heading towards its predetermined cause. The sense of inevitability and predestination (the narrator often mentions the fact that Odilo can't commit suicide and has no choice but to follow through) further strengthens the significance of the alternative title.
Time's arrow is often associated with the broad definition of entropy. According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy in a closed system increases with time, therefore establishing the irreversible direction of the latter. Entropy can be viewed, in general terms, as an expression of disorder or randomness in a system. The narrator often repeats his observation that creation is easy, whereas destruction is hard: that is probably the best definition of the reversal of time. Accordingly, the novel brings Odilo back from the state of a sinful, haunted war criminal, to that of an immaculate being.
The novel ironically begins with the words "I moved forward"; this also parallels the reversal of time back to its natural direction in the last paragraph.
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Amis is a consistently thoughtful nomenclator. The American pseudonyms of the protagonist are auspiciously generic yet ambivalent: Tod ("death" in German) Friendly, John (originally Y'hohanan, meaning "God has pardoned" in Hebrew) Young. His Portuguese nom de guerre is merely habitational: Hamilton ("hamel", bare, scarred + "dun", hill) De Souza (of the river Sousa in Portugal). The name Odilo is perhaps based on Odilo Globocnik, who was the lead administrator of Operation Reinhard. Unverdorben is German for pristine, unspoilt.
The last paragraph illustrates a certain vision experienced by the narrator a few hours before Odilo's birth: on an open field, lady archers are gathering targets and bows, and shortly after he glimpses an arrow flying point first. This suddenly relates to him the true nature of the arrow of time, and with it the true meaning of Odilo's actions. The reversal of time is referred to also by the trope "slope of pine", similar to the phrase "from swerve of shore to bend of bay" that, in the opening paragraph of Finnegans Wake, also denotes the curving of time (in the latter case, its looping back to the beginning).
According to Amis's autobiography the story is narrated by the soul of Odilo. This could account for the curious schism between the narrator and his earthly vessel. Also, in the last line of the novel the narrator speaks of himself as "I within, who came at the wrong time – either too soon, or after it was all too late." The ambiguity is perhaps not only due to the last minute reversal of time, making "too soon" and "too late" equivalent. It may also hint that Odilo's soul, his innocence, was regained to him at his last moments; that it had thrust him into this backwards reviewing of his own life; and that the resulting epiphany, coming at his life's end, near his life's conception, is therefore useless.
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- Bentley, Nick (2014). Martin Amis (Writers and Their Work). Northcote House Publishing Ltd.
- Diedrick, James (2004). Understanding Martin Amis (Understanding Contemporary British Literature). University of South Carolina Press.
- Finney, Brian (2013). Martin Amis (Routledge Guides to Literature). Routledge.
- Keulks, Gavin (2003). Father and Son: Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis, and the British Novel Since 1950. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0299192105.
- Keulks, Gavin (ed) (2006). Martin Amis: Postmodernism and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0230008304.
- Tredall, Nicolas (2000). The Fiction of Martin Amis (Readers' Guides to Essential Criticism). Palgrave Macmillan.
- Levi, Primo (1963). "Chapter One: The Thaw". The Truce (The Bodley Head, 1965 ed.). pp. 12–13. A discussion about the chapter
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Surname Database – Hamilton
- Experience, p. 289