Review: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis


Time's Arrow by Martin Amis book cover image
Time’s Arrow (1991) is Martin Amis’s unique and controversial novel about the life of a Nazi doctor who served at Auschwitz. Told backwards, the narrative picks up as the central character, Tod T. Friendly, wakes from death and follows him backwards towards birth, through multiple identities (Tod T. Friendly, John Young, Hamilton de Souza, Odilo Unverdorben), in an ambitious and disorienting style. The narrator, a part of Tod’s personality, struggles to understand the world that plays out around him, and the reader is hauled through odd juxtapositions with the narrator, ranging from the comical to the sinister. Tod has no free will in this world, no choice over the course his life takes as he is dragged back through it; he, like the reader, is a passenger, helplessly witnessing the atrocities, powerless to intervene.

The reverse narrative style provides an ambitious and interesting way of considering the Holocaust - a period of almost inconceivable human cruelty - which is perhaps best understood by an irregular or surreal form. Doctors who served in the concentration camps reported that they believed themselves to be doing humanity a kindness; removing malignant tissue for the good of the body as a whole. In reverse, the atrocities take on a new poignancy - described in almost biblical terms - and the narrative becomes a comment on the Nazi’s perverse understanding of progress. As the narrative advances we learn more of Tod (Odilo), but it’s not until we reach Auschwitz that, poignantly, everything begins to fall into place. It becomes clear that the split in Odilo’s personality, his sexual (and moral) impotence, and his desire to dominate others, are all rooted in his experiences at Auschwitz. When returned to the most significant period of both the century and his life, Odilo thrives in the homosocial environment of the camp, and morphs into the confident young man he once was. Compared to Odilo, who holds several identities during the course of the novel, The Jews at Aushwitz are treated as a mass; a faceless people. In a sense as the 'other'.

The narrator’s bafflement at the world indicates that he is the part of Odilo’s split personality that avoided Nazi indoctrination, that remained appalled by the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. However, the narrator is not honest with the reader, at times he is the uncomprehending victim, at others he is aware of the situation. There is certainly an abdication of responsibility present, a form of denial.

Whilst it takes a little time to familiarise one’s self to the unusual style, Amis gently breaks the reader in, striking a lighter, comedic tone during the novel’s opening chapters. The reverse dialogue too takes some getting used to, and one is often forced to read it both as it’s printed and then again in reverse to fully appreciate the implications of the conversation. Amis cites a scene in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five as his main stylistic influence and, whilst others such as Harold Pinter, Sarah Waters, and Don DeLillo, have reversed time in an episodic manner, no one had attempted anything a complex as Time's Arrow. The unique style forces the reader to engage with the world they are presented with in an unconventional way, forces them to new heights of perception. However, whilst the form is conscientiously created, the plot itself is unextraordinary and, were it to be read forwards, would prove a little dull. That Time's Arrow is a short novel negates this fact to an extent, but it is nevertheless present.

Given the subject and the style, writing a book like Time's Arrow is brave and involves a great deal of craft, but one is left with the feeling that the realisation of the concept is not quite the tour de force it could have been. There was criticism of the book on its release, and it opens an interesting debate as to who 'owns' the Holocaust; who has the right to discuss it. Certainly, there are jokes in the book that, for some readers, will feel a little cheap to sit in the same book as the Holocaust, but perhaps this points to the fact that nothing is sacred, that life goes on, in all its banality, with disregard for sacrosanctity. Although ironies that arise due to the reverse narrative are initially lighter in tone, they become increasingly dark as the narrative moves towards the barbarism of Auschwitz. In a sense Amis is mirroring the Nazis own misuse of language, in their case to justify mass-murder, and this fits into the many dualities in the novel. When he talks of Time's Arrow in relation to the Holocaust, one gets the impression that Amis is fully aware and sensitive to the implications of writing about the topic. He cites one of his main influences in writing Time's Arrow as Robert Jay Lifton’s book, The Nazi Doctors, a non-fiction exploration of the psychology of the doctors who disregarded the Hippocratic oath and committed numerous murders during the Holocaust, and it is evident that Amis has approached the rsearch and writing of Time's Arrow in a thorough manner.

The novel’s conclusion is left open, with it unclear whether or not Odilo and the narrator will now live life forwards – forever oscillating between the past and the present, never allowing the reader to fully escape the implications of the novel, and suggesting that, not only should the Holocaust be remembered always, but that it may happen again. Indeed, that Tod’s journey might be a mirror inversion of Amis’s own generation’s journey towards a nuclear holocaust.

Time's Arrow is stylistically breath-taking. As a technical feat it is hugely impressive, and yet I can't help but feel that it could have been something even more special had Amis spent time developing the plot into something more extraordinary, more poignant. Still, a fascinating and powerful approach to writing the Holocaust, all done in Amis's superb and cutting style.

Useful Links
Reviews of Time's Arrow on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Time's Arrow on Amazon (US)

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Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

There was too much that I wanted to put in this review, and so I had to leave quite a lot out (perhaps if I have time I will write a fuller analysis one day). There are two snippets though, that I wanted to share:


The novel’s title, Time’s Arrow, was the phrase used by physicist A. S. Eddington to denote the directionality of time that follow from the second law of thermodynamics. The novel could be read in light of this, and a thermodynamic reading is an interesting approach. The Wikipedia page on Eddington’s definition of Time’s Arrow is worth a read if you want to know more.

Certainly, the novel’s title suggests that what can happen has already happened, a kind of determinism, but at the same time the novel points to a multitude of possibilities (side-shadowing), and suggests that our future is not determined, we still have the power to shape it. Considered in this light the novel is not only a reminder of the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another, but also a stark warning about the nuclear holocaust that lies undefined on the horizon. Classical physics suggests that all actions and occurrences are theoretically reversible and, despite human existence suggesting this not to be literally the case, if it were then time's directionality would be meaningless and indiscernible.


The names that the protagonist holds during the novel are all significant; Tod, which means death in German, Unverdorben, which is German for untainted or uncorrupted. Odilo suggests both St. Odil of Cluny and St. Odilia, both of which carry with them allusions moral blindness, such as the Nazi’s.

Petra said...

This sounds like an interesting book, though the topic makes me feel sick. Especially when I fully realize how very close I live to the places where all those concentration and extermination camps were. Not to mention that some Slavs died there too.
(And I had to learn German during the whole high-school! :P )

So I put it on my list, and I hope I'll get to Waterstones tomorrow!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Yes, the physical proximity must bring the period emotionally closer for you than for people like me who are disconnected both in time and geography.

Give it a try - it's an interesting way of looking at the Holocaust and, for me, a pretty effective one.

charmofthereal said...

Nice review. I'm wondering if you've read any Zizek or Theweleit related to nazism, or Bolano's book of shorts, "Nazi Literature in the Americas."

Petra said...

Got the book today!

And Zizek's everywhere I look! :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...


I haven't - what do you recommend? I have to admit, it's not a subject that I've touched on much since school, so is probably something I should read up on, now I'm a (slightly) maturer reader.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

@ Petra

Nice one - shouldn't take long to get through, then you can tell me what you think!