There are generally a lot of interesting forms of narrative disjunction in contemporary literature, and while Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow is not necessarily the most original, it reads as a fresh narrative. It tells the story of a man through the eyes of an inside observer. A being, or essence, or consciousness that somehow emerges into the body of a man at his death and them views his life in reverse. The entity within him is not extraterrestrial, just an omniscient presence which all other characters in the book are unaware of. He has no ability to control the body he is in, and while he hears and feels everything his host thinks and feels, he cannot communicate with his host, and he has his own set of feelings and thoughts. This nameless entity tries to make sense of the world that is happening before, and does not realize the narrative he is watching is inverted. There is an ending that is not at all certain from the onset, and the following detail may reveal things the author wishes you to discover on your own. I’ve always felt that knowing the ending of a great narrative did not spoil it, because if it is a good narrative, you will come back to it knowing the ending already. This is such a piece. But the reader might wonder of the hosts past, and may believe that his name change was the result of peodophilic actions, or hopes of avoiding the draft, it is something altogether different.
By the end of the novel, we learn the host body’s name is Odilo Unverdorben, though he undergoes several name changes and ends up, at the narrative’s beginning, as Tod Friendly. Romances begin with nasty names, arguments, quiet down, and then lead to romance, which of course puzzles the protagonist. His body heals from being decrpit and weak, to strong, and while he feels invigorated and relieved, he wonders why the host body doesn’t appreciate this change. Exchanges of money are of course reverse. Prostitutes pay old men to sleep with them, and the old men are always kind enough to wait until after the deed to collect their money, and drop the women off on the street somewhere. There are a number of interesting reinterpretations, but this novel is not a one trick pony. The core of the novel for me is the juxtaposition of how the host body doctors his patients. In one life we see he inserts diseased organs into people, or bullets, or any number of things that bring great pain to the patients. Then sends them out in great pain. In the other life, at Auschwitz, takes corpses that are brought up from ashes and brings life to them again, helps them to find lost families members and sends them back home via train. This juxtaposition is potent and illustrates how backward the logic and reasoning of war is, and in particular the genocide. But it does more than that. It encourages the reader to re-evaluate the world around them, and consider the implications of their actions and beliefs. Christianity for example, preaches forgiveness. And when a priest helps a man to escape what we might assume to the Vietnam draft, and turns out to be the reintegration of a war criminal into society, we forced to accept the totality of Christ forgiveness. A war criminal is as much entitled to forgiveness as anybody. A priest has an obligation to help, to forgive, and to understand, even the mot vial of people. We are forced to consider the complete life of a person, where we might have passed final judgement on the first act of their lives. We are shown what forgiveness can bring. The final 2/3rds of Unverdorben’s life defines him as much as the first, and we see how good a person who seems so evil can become. There is an existentialist idea in there, that one’s past does not define who they have to be, merely what they were. And there is also an examination of our own complicities in these horrible acts. Who we make love to, and have affairs with. Who we work for. We dont know all of these things, and we dont ask. We try to avoid complicity by ignoring the truth. We dont ask where it came from, or where its going, and are in turn complicit whether we care to admit it or not. We do not know who the people around us are, who they were, or who they will become. And we are therefore encouraged not to pass judgement on the things around us, because without comprehensive knowledge of everything, we cannot fairly contextualize anything, and obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of any thing is impossible. The tortures that helped to cause the tragic death of millions of Jews, could very well bring forth knew surgical knowledge that could save a hundred fold more. Doing math with lives is never a good thing, but the bottom line is there is no absolute truth and we cannot place a finite value judgement on anything.
There is also a suggestion that the majority of our lives are spend in the epilogue of our own personal narratives. That the climax of our lives occurs when we are young, and that part of the tragedy of life is that we live in the shadow of that climax. That we cannot go back to it. And the the hardest part of life is finding a way to continue even though the happiest moments of our lives are behind us.
There are some details left unsolved, like the source of the photos in the chest. The young girls. The complete nature of his relationship with the prostitutes and drug addicts which he interacted with. So even after coming to the climax, there are questions.
You do what you do best, not whats best to do.
The cows did not look up from their grazing, their indifference seeming to say, This is alright. This need not be remarrked.
Odilo Unverdorben, as a moral being, is absolutely unexceptional, liable to do what everybody else does, good or bad, with nolimit, once under the cover of numbers.
My life is mine, and mine alone to take.
If you liked this, try:
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button: I cannot speak for the book, as I have not yet read it, but, whilst I seem to be in the underwhelming minority, I think the movie was very interesting and share a similar narrative style with Time’s Arrow.
Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut: The author admits the book borrows heavily form a famous paragraph in Vonnegut’s famous novel, no doubt the paragraph in which Vonnegut imagine war in reverse: planes fly over destroyed cities and turn charred ashes into fire that breath form into buildings while the gases are collected into small metal bombs that that are pulled into planes and flown away. The rest of Vonnegut’s novel jumps from point to point in a linear narrative until the entire picture is clear. Characters and stories are very different, but the spirit of the narrative form of these to novels are kindred spirits.
Time’s Arrow (Episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation): This two-part episode borrows the title of the novel, little else is in common, but being a trekkie, I love to reference episodes whenever I can.
The Betrayal (Episode of Seinfeld): The backward episode of Seinfeld.
Betrayal (by Harold Pinter): I havent read it, but it wad the inspiration of the Seinfeld episode and Harold Pinter has quite the reputation. It is a play, so if you don’t like reading plays….
Before and After (Episode, Star Trek Voyager): Ah, another Star Trek reference! And elderly Kes is in sickbay, confused as all hell, and finds she is jumping backward in time. When she returns, she is able to tell her crewmates of a coming attack and save a number of people. Voyager is not STOS, or STTNG, or even STE for that matter, but it has its moments, and this is one of them!
Redrum (Episode, X-files): This one borrows the linear pattern of other backward episodes, and its title references the classic Kubrick film The Shining, Jullian Anderson, what’s not to love?
Word I thought I’d look up:
Bacilli: A rod shaped spore.
Trichinae: a parasitic worm.
Vapidity: Dull, lacking interest.
Monad: A single cell organism.
Necropolis: A cemetery. From the Latin for dead and city.
Pterodactyl: An extinct flying reptile.
Frauleins: German for little woman.
Capstan: A rotating cylinder, or rotating tape recorder.
Gerontology: The study of aging.
Nimbus: A dark, rain bearing cloud.
Assignations: Lovers meeting, or assigning something to somebody.
Parallaxes: Resembling each other.
Perspicacious: Discerningly and penetratingly deceptive.
Fuggier: Stuffy atmosphere.
Immolate: To kill as a sacrifice.
Expatiate: To speak or write at length.
Auscultation: An examination with a stethoscope.
Nystagmus: Involuntary movement of the eyeball.
Bifurcation: Divided into two.
Saturnalias: Wild celebration.
Deracinating: To uproot.
Cacophony: An unpleasant noise.
Palaver: Empty talk.
Prussic acid: Hydrogen and cyanide in water.
Ovoid: With form of an egg.
Tutelary: Acting as protector.
Delphinium: Plant with flower spikes.
Atavistic: Relating to genetic reappearance.
Musselmann: A German term used to describe a concentration camp prisoner who is on the brink of dying of starvation.