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June 13, 2003

Time's Arrow - Martin Amis

Clever tale of Nazi butcher's life

Amis has a fairly straightforward tale to tell, of a German doctor who worked in the Nazi death camps of the Second World War. The man escaped with gold stolen from the murdered Jews, changed his identity and lived the rest of his life as a doctor helping the sick in America, and eventually died of old age. There are probably novels that cover this kind of life, and even if there aren't it would be possible to write a good novel with this plot synopsis. But there is a trick Amis wants to play on us - he writes the story completely backwards.

The story begins with the man's death, lets call him Tod Friendly, though this is an alias. The details are related by someone who comes into consciousness at this point in time and lives inside the Tod's head. This unnamed narrator has access to the man's senses, and his feelings, but not to his thoughts. He begins by being pretty bewildered about what is going on, and never understands that his timeline is wrong; for example, he thinks that kind parents see their children crying, and slap them to make them feel better; he thinks taxis are always available, and that grateful passengers wave them goodbye upon exiting. Tod's life runs backwards, but the entity inside lives forwards, and so remembers the man's future as his past. This makes for many interesting and amusing misunderstandings like the ones just mentioned, and is also a clever and unorthodox way to raise the tension. Tod has nightmares, and we can see that this is a precursor to something terrible happening, but we have to guess what that might be. Tod is a very unpleasant man, who didn't need much persuasion to be corrupted by the Nazis, and who spends his whole life mistreating the women in his life. We don't hate him as much as we ought to though, because it's his miserable old age, and years of worry that we first discover, and this skew in our feelings is one of the most remarkable thing about the novel.

It's quite a short book, so there isn't really time to get too irritated by the confusion it causes; conversations are particularly difficult, so sometimes you need to turn the page and actually read the novel backwards. The combined elements of this backwards storytelling, Tod's harrowing life, and the holocaust itself, make this an interesting and thought-provoking read.

AE 2

Posted by se71 at June 13, 2003 04:20 PM


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