‘I had thought of making a sentimental journey to Auschwitz. The place of power on the confluence of the rivers: the place where the numbered Jews, and all the others, who had no number, came down from the heavens; the place where, for a time, there was no why.’
I had heard a lot about Martin Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow before I read it, and was pretty intrigued by the concept. Now having read it, I found it to be…rather bizarre.
The novel tells the story of a Nazi war criminal named Odilo Unverdorben backwards. Yes, you read that right. Backwards. And not in a Benjamin Button style of a character aging backwards, or simply scenes placed in reverse chronology (as in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal); the whole world of Time’s Arrow is completely backwards. People catch taxis backward, waving them off when they’ve been taken somewhere they didn’t want to go, people say answers and others reply with questions, doctors make people ill and…well, let’s not get started on the mechanics of going to the toilet backwards.
This reverse chronology is consistent throughout the entire novel, and in this manner, the book is a great literary feat. At the same time, I found it quite hard to follow, as everything you are told you have to mentally reverse to understand what is actually going on.
To complicate things further, the first person narrative of the book is not told from Odilo Unverdorben himself, but rather from a separate consciousness inside his mind; an almost parasitic awareness that has no access to Odilo’s thoughts or motives, and is perhaps subconsciously aware that everything that is happening is backwards.
When we first meet Odilo, at what is chronologically the end of his life (we do in fact witness his death/birth), but is in the reverse world, the start of his life (hope you’re following!), he is living in America as ‘Tod Friendly’, a respectable elderly doctor living in an ordinary suburban house, going to work every day and making people ill. As the book goes on, we see him pass back through a few more false identities and travel to Europe, until we meet his true self; a Nazi doctor working in Auschwitz, assisting in the torture and killing of Jews (or the healing and resurrection of Jews as the reverse narrative has it).
And this, to me, felt like the entire point of the backwards chronology. The Nazi doctors, who tortured and killed millions of concentration camp prisoners, were in fact real life doctors in reverse, and attention is drawn to this real life reversal by Martin Amis’ fictional reversal. This was how I read it anyway, after a lot of thinking! And this is certainly a book that makes you think. There are so many books on the Holocaust, one of the most shocking and horrific atrocities in history, that it could be seen that most fail to encapsulate the true horror, and that we have become more numb to it. By forcing the reader to mentally reverse (and therefore fully process) what is written, it causes you to really think about it.
However, the use of this reverse chronology in a book about so serious a subject has often garnered a lot of criticism, many people believing that the ‘gimmicky’ style makes light of the subject. Whilst I don’t personally think this is the case, I can understand where they were coming from. Whilst at times the style draws attention to the subject, at others it distracts from it, as you try and get your mind around the chronology.
Although I can’t say I massively enjoyed the book (it being a significant exercise in brainpower to get through) there were definitely some poignant bits, and the consistency of the backwards world was really well done. Therefore, I’d give the book 5/5 for literary merit, but for enjoyment I’d only give it 3/5. I like a book that makes you think, but not one that makes my brain hurt!