My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have been putting off writing this review of “Time’s Arrow.”
It’s not because I disliked the book. I didn’t. It’s well written (of course; it’s Martin Amis) and thoughtful and even, dare I say it, clever – a tale about a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronological order.
But it’s not because I loved the book, either, and was unable to put my excitement into words.
The thing is, I felt no excitement. I felt admiration, as if watching a magician pulling off a particularly difficult trick, but not excitement. There seemed to be no stakes.
That’s the thing about Amis, at least for me: The man is such a wizard with language, erudite and even astonishing, and yet his facility puts a distance between his subject and me, the reader. He is not visceral or emotional. His abilities are impressive, but cold to the touch.
And with a story like “Time’s Arrow,” I felt he needed some emotion. This isn’t “London Fields” or “Money: A Suicide Note,” in which numerous characters are contemptible or, at least, an easy source of mockery – phony strivers, posh twits or thick-headed chavs. This is about a Nazi doctor — an assistant to a thinly disguised Josef Mengele — who leaves destruction in his wake, though given the book’s conceit, that destruction eerily re-forms into the whole: broken relationships become passionate and innocent; money is refunded for goods and services; shit re-emerges from toilets and is taken back into the body; and, most movingly (or as close as Amis gets to “moving”), ashes recede down chimneys, becoming living, breathing people, who are eventually transported away from Auschwitz and back to their lives of ever-increasing freedoms.
It’s not like Amis doesn’t take his subject seriously. He wrestles with the depths. The main character is introduced as Tod Friendly (his name bestowed by a trafficker named Kreditor); we are guided on his reverse path by what may be his unknowing soul, a spirit careful to note the good things Friendly appears to do. As time is wound back, Friendly works as an illicit doctor in New England, arrives in New York after World War II, hides out in Portugal and eventually is revealed as Odilo Unverdorben, a mediocre medical man with a dim but questioning wife.
The scenes in Auschwitz, which start about two-thirds of the way into the slim book, are harrowing in their detail. “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the façade of the Sprinklerom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.”
The gold removed from prisoners’ teeth is reattached; their hair is brought in, “freight car after freight car,” and put back on their heads; the guards give the women back their rings and valuables and stop their wailing.
It’s powerful stuff. Amis is trying to make sense of what he knows is madness. But in doing so, he reduces it to the clinical. Perhaps this is for the best; there’s a whole body of literature devoted to chronicling the Holocaust and its aftermath, and yet it somehow still resists understanding.
Still, I think of another fictional assembly of details, the passages of Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and I wonder why the lists of items in O’Brien’s work convey such weight and sadness. Maybe it’s because his soldiers have an essential humanity that Unverdorben lacks: “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”
In the end, of course, Unverdorben becomes nothing, a being that enters his mother, “how she will weep and scream.” He is also an infant, his dreams “all colors and noises,” before he will grow up to become a monster – a banal evil that not even Amis can explain.
“Time’s Arrow” is a valiant effort. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be moved and dazzled (well, I was often dazzled). But as I closed the final page, the last thing I wanted to do was start again from the beginning. Sometimes you don’t want to know how the trick is done. And sometimes, you wish it weren’t a trick.