Classic Books: Time’s Arrow

timesarrow(As with the first Amis novel in this series, I am indebted to Nicholas Trigell’s The Fiction of Martin Amis, which contains an extensive chapter on Time’s Arrow.)

The immediate question of Time’s Arrow is: who is telling this story? Its narrator occupies a body, but cannot control it: the physical vessel ‘won’t take orders from this will of mine.’ Quickly the narrator realises that he’s no more than ‘passenger or parasite’; he has no access to the body’s thoughts and no influence on events: he’s here for the duration.

Time’s Arrow begins with an old man coming to life. The man is rushed by paramedics to his suburban home where he suffers a heart attack and then does a bit of gardening, planting weeds, distributing dead leaves. Life is being lived backwards.

The idea of a whole novel played out in reverse time is an amusing thought experiment for Amis, and offers rich comic potential for a mind such as his, always looking for the leftfield angle. The possibilities are exploited in ways alternately funny, thought provoking, even touching. Council trucks cover the streets in garbage that is collected in trickles by casual walkers over the following day. Restaurants pay you upfront to bring up a meal, after which you sit there and describe it to the waiter, the food having been reduced with great care to its constituent parts. Amis has great scatological fun with the basic human processes, such as eating, and taking a shit. Everything of value comes from the bin, the toilet and the fire.

But this man, Tod Friendly, isn’t just a retired clinician. Although the narrator can’t access Friendly’s memories or knowledge, he can get a general idea of Friendly’s emotions, like ‘a crocodile in the thick river of his feeling tone’. Under the exterior of a genial retiree Friendly is filled with self-loathing and shame: he avoids mirrors, drinks too much, smashes up his furniture at night. Mysterious letters turn up in the grate, cryptic in their banality, informing Friendly that ‘the weather in New York continues to be temperate’; exasperated, the narrator notes Tod’s overreaction: ‘as if New York were next door, and as if temperate weather meant rat showers and devil winds and the mad strobes of Venusian lightning… How will he take it if the weather in New York turns really bad?’

The narrator does share Friendly’s nightmares of a recurring figure ‘in the white coat, his black boots straddling many acres’; around him ‘a blizzard of wind and sleet, like a storm of human souls.’ There’s a nightmare about a baby with ‘the ultimate power of life and death over its parents, its older brothers and sisters, its grandparents, and indeed everybody else who is gathered in the room’, a power that comes from ‘its voice, the sounds it makes, its capacity to weep.’ In a backwards reality there is no free will, everyone knows exactly how long they’ve got to live (the narrator theorises that babies cry because they’re ‘sad to be going’) it’s all been done before yet there is real suspense as we head towards the great and mysterious crime of Friendly’s past. As an old man Friendly makes little gestures of charity which the narrator, as always, misconstrues: he’s disgusted at Friendly’s habit of taking a ‘really big bill’ from the church collection plate. Yet these tokens of generosity are really acts of propitiation. He’s like the former Iraqi general in Wendell Steavenson’s The Weight of a Mustard Seed, who carries out similar small philanthropies to weigh the scales against the atrocities of his career and to petition for a better afterlife. The comparison is apt.

For Tod Friendly turns out to be Odilo Unverdorben, a Nazi doctor and Mengele’s assistant at Auschwitz. It’s at the Holocaust chapters where Amis’s concept comes into its own. The reverse scatologies of the early scenes (where Unverdorben has fled to America through the Vatican escape tunnels with his false identity and his gold taken from Jewish teeth) take on new significance: people are created through shit, trash and fire. The narrator of Amis’s novel is horrified by what he sees during Unverdorben’s later career as a hospital physician: from his point of view doctors are there to inflict injury and incubate disease. But for him Auschwitz is a noble enterprise, and the only time where he experiences complete identification with his host body – signified by his repeated use of the phrase: ‘I, Odilo Unverdorben’. What could be better than to bring people back to life, to reunite families and heal wounds, to integrate Jews, gypsies and homosexuals into a society that becomes gradually liberalised as the Nazi machine dismantles itself? ‘Human ordure’ makes all this possible; the narrator can think of ‘no finer tribute’ to Auschwitz than the officers’ slang term ‘Anus Mundi’: the arsehole of the world.

While the camp is paradise to the narrator (continually and naively drawing the wrong conclusion from the events he witnesses) for the reader it is hell. Having been conditioned by the novel’s earlier chapters to make sense of what’s going on by mentally reversing process, motion and dialogue, we now can’t stop doing it – with harrowing results. ‘[T]he dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive.’  ‘I saw the old Jew float to the surface of the deep latrine, how he splashed and struggled into life’. ‘A shockingly inflamed eyeball at once rectified by a single injection. Innumerable ovaries and testes seamlessly grafted into place.’ The danger with reading accounts of torture and genocide is that the sheer weight of human suffering can bludgeon the reader into desensitivity. Evil’s victory is that it forces one to look away: and so the horror is repeated and never again means nothing. But Amis makes us look. Rather than trivialising the Holocaust with his sci-fi concept, Amis makes it resonate. As Donald Morse said: ‘By so involving the reader Amis ensures that far from aestheticising the atrocities or providing aesthetic pleasure from the misery and pain of the victims as Adorno feared, this process renders them part of the reader’s immediate experience… historical reality is brought back to consciousness through imagination.’

In his afterword Amis pays tribute to Robert Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors: ‘My novel would not and could not have been written without it.’ And, in a sense, can’t be understood without it. In that book, Lifton interviewed scores of survivors and perpetrators with the aim of exploring the contradiction of the doctors’ medical training with their role in the camps. How could someone take the Hippocratic oath (‘In whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrongdoing and harm…’) and go on to participate in systematic killing?

His theory was that the Nazi doctors engaged in ‘doubling… the formation of a functional second self, related to but more or less autonomous from the prior self.’ Doubling was not unique to fascism, we all practise it to some extent in our work and lives. But the Nazis took it to genocidal lengths. It was this ‘psychic numbing’ that allowed the SS officer to spend all day feeding the ovens and then buy a box of chocolates for his wife on the way home.

It was this paradox between ‘the reversals of healing and killing’ that animated Lifton in his psychological work and Amis in his fiction. The Nazis, of course, explained their vision in medical terms, with one camp doctor justifying his actions by comparing the Jews to a gangrenous appendix in the body. Lifton: ‘[T]he extreme numbing that rendered killing no longer killing… maintaining a medical identity while killing, and somehow finding meaning in the environment.’

Doubling is at the heart of Time’s Arrow. The narrator is Unverdorben’s soul, jettisoned at an early age. We can even pinpoint the moment of this monstrous separation. The baby in Unverdorben’s nightmares remains a mystery for so long: is it Unverdorben’s dead child, or perhaps a reference to the Hiroshima bomb? As a young man in the Waffen SS, Unverdorben is already packing the Jews into ghettoes and mass graves. Inspecting a rural warehouse, he becomes aware of a noise from the wall – the sound of a baby crying, and ‘the sound that perhaps the whole planet makes when it tries to soothe: ‘Schh… Schh…’’ Alone in the room, he understands that a family is hidden in some alcove behind the wall. The baby by its crying has given them away. At that moment Unverdorben has a choice. His deliberation is all the more poignant for the narrator’s unawareness of it. Eventually Unverdorben alerts his troops to the family behind the wall. He makes the wrong decision and cements his destiny as a war criminal, an active participant in the service of evil.

At that moment his soul is abandoned forever as an inner observer. Amis has worked too hard on his voice to disown it, and the soul’s narration has his signature combination of the colloquial and learned. But there’s a gentleness and a shyness, liberal and tolerant, full of yearning and sorrow, and humanity and love.

One Response to “Classic Books: Time’s Arrow”

  1. Classic Books: The Remains of the Day « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] when the butler is ‘entirely alone.’ (Of course, we’ve looked at professional ‘doubling’ […]

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