Tuesday, September 1, 2009

247. Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis

History: Published in 1991. 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.
In reality, of course, the world goes forward, meaning that this view of Auschwitz must be again reversed by the reader. The story can thus be seen as a way of showing how the Holocaust is not merely an evil act but a complete reversal of humanity and even ordinary logic.
Plot: Dr. Tod T. Friendly dies as the book opens and the narrator is "born". The narrator of the story is an entity who lives inside a man named Tod Friendly. He is a bystander and cannot control what Tod says or does in any way... a sort of doppelganger spirit, ("the soul he should have had") imprisoned within the body and mind of Friendly, who detects Friendly's emotions, but cannot affect Friendly's actions. Oh, and the doppelganger experiences Friendly's life backwards, starting with his death, and ending with his birth.
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.
The narrator sees Tod's life progressing backwards-from death to birth. He comes into consciousness with Tod's death and learns to translate reverse speech. Most life events confuse him because he sees them occurring backwards. He sees Tod getting stronger and more virile as he recovers and grows noticeably younger. Tod "starts" a long-term relationship with a woman named Irene, which commences with her leaving him for good. Again, the narrator is trying to rationalize the reverse events in the tumultuous relationship. He works as a doctor and his actions to help people are viewed as hurtful by the narrator because people come to him well and leave sick and in pain. Tod seems to be a tortured man; he has nightmares about doctors and babies. He has a sordid past that he is running from. The narrator has an intuitive grasp of this and also knows that life can't be altered because suicide is not possible.
Tod's name changes to John Young. John is living in New York and is tipped off by Nicholas Kreditor that the authorities are aware of him, so he changes his identity to Tod. John's life gets better while he is still living quietly in the country. He is a popular doctor and has many friends. He is a womanizer and has many girlfriends, including Irene. The narrator is very disturbed by John's work at the hospital. He works traumatic cases which, when viewed in reverse, are interpreted by the narrator as John hurting people.
John leaves for Europe to fight in the war although in actuality, he is fleeing Europe to travel to America. His name changes to Hamilton de Souza while he lives in Portugal for a short time. He then travels through Europe to Italy, and finally back to Germany where his name is Odilo Unverdorben.
Odilo works at Auschwitz, where the narrator sees his work as magical. In his view, they are bringing thousands of people back to life. It is at Auschwitz that we see just what Amis has intended, as, rather than a mass murderer, Unverdorben appears to be a healer, his experiments, run backwards, seeming to bring his "patients" back to life and health, the camp filling with people "as good as new", the Zyklon B repackaged, the ghettos dismantled, the Jewish Laws repealed, the windows unshattered on Kristalnacht, the entire Holocaust itself being undone. And back and back until Unverdorben is unborn, crawling back into his mother, as if none of it had ever happened, a kind of cosmic do-over.
He works closely with a character named "Uncle Pepi" in the experimentation rooms. His wife Herta, does not approve of his work. Their child, Eva dies shortly after birth.
Odilo works at "lesser" facilities which "process" unwanted people like the insane and blind. The narrator is upset by the decline in "great work." His relationship with Herta grows more intense as they move towards their marriage, then fades as they get to know each other. Odilo then is back at medical school, where he meets Herta. He moves home with his family and becomes a child. The narrator is upset knowing his life will end at Odilo's birth.
Review: The hero of Time's Arrow: Or The Nature of the Offense, Tod T. Friendly (alias John Young, alias Hamilton de Souza, alias Odilo Unverdorben), is being reeled, without ever stumbling, back through a lifetime of denial, anxiety, panic, sadism, arrogance, and, finally, innocence.
Time's arrow, at least in Martin Amis' cosmology, doesn't fly from the bow to the target, but from the target to the bow — then from the bow to the quiver, from the quiver to the tree, from the tree to the acorn. The forgotten codger becomes a vigorous model citizen. Then as cars get ''fatter and fewer, and imitate animals with their fins and wings,'' he becomes a desperate fugitive. Sailing to Europe in 1948, he's a war criminal who then flees from Portugal to Italy, eventually making his way from his sanctuary in the Vatican to the camp at Auschwitz, where he serves as the assistant to Josef Mengele (called ''Uncle Pepi'' in the book). Leaving Poland, he moves to Berlin and becomes a medical student, then a schoolboy, a toddler, an infant. Then a fetus. Then nothing.
Telling a story in inverted chronology is hardly a new idea, but it's probably fair to say that nobody has taken it to such dizzying extremes: Here rain is sucked back into clouds, cigarettes are ''quenched'' of coals and returned to their packs, a wounded finger is ''healed and sealed by the knife's blade.'' Conversations begin with goodbye, end with hello. Fire creates, and a crying child is ''calmed by the firm slap of a father's hand.''
Most disturbing of all, the Jews of Auschwitz are brought to life by ''jubilant guards'' who give them hair, clothing, even gold for their teeth, then put them on trains and send them all home.
But what's the point of all the topsy-turvy? This, perhaps: That only in its unraveling, in its utter and total annihilation of itself, does history seem at all benevolent, or a person humane. This book is a real mindbender. I was completely lost. I never got the reverse thing, I was mainly trying to decipher the verbage, which was tedious.
Opening Line: “What goes around comes around. I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors… American doctors.”
Closing Line: “And I within, who came at the wrong time – either too soon, or after it was all too late.”
Quotes: “The social standing enjoyed by doctors is of course formidably high.”
“Like writing, paintings seem to hint at a topsy-turvy world in which, so to speak, times arrow moves the other way.”
Rating: Not good.

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