Men Giving Birth to New World Orders: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow

By Harris, Greg | Studies in the Novel, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Men Giving Birth to New World Orders: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow


Harris, Greg, Studies in the Novel


Explaining the [Nazi] perpetrators' actions demands ... that the perpetrators' phenomenological reality be taken seriously. We must attempt the difficult enterprise of imagining ourselves in their places, performing their deeds, acting as they did, viewing what they beheld.

--Daniel Goldhagen

An effort not only to think about but arrive at an understanding of how the "unthinkable"-Nazi genocidal atrocity-ever occurred, Martin Amis's novel, Time's Arrow, is narrated in reverse time; the novel begins at the death bed of the character Tod Friendly, whose life literally rewinds before his eyes. (His name changes in accordance to the different identities he appropriates through the course of his life while fleeing prosecution for Nazi war crimes-from "Tod T. Friendly" to "John Young," from John Young to "Hamilton de Souza," and lastly, from Hamilton De Souza to his original identity, "Odilo Unverdorben.") Amis presents a text where the protagonist's life is moving backward and all logic and normative reality is reversed. By progressing backwards, the narrative style in and of itself comments on the Nazi's paradoxical version of "progress"--that is, the revitalization of archaic myths in the name of national renewal. Indeed, the narrative's reversals only begin to "make sense" when Tod reaches the moment of his past when he was a Nazi. For Nazi "rationality," as Amis points out time and time again, blurred the lines between creation and destruction, as destruction was often rationalized as a means to create. Such "logic" underlies the notion that genocidal mass murder will lead to racial (Aryan) revival as well as the idea that violence is the way to national renewal-e.g., rebuilding the German Nation via militarism.

Time's Arrow is narrated from the perspective of a co-consciousness (and sometimes ghost conscience) that exists as an exile within Tod's body. At the beginning of the novel, the consciousness-split occurs at Tod's deathbed as the narrator becomes aware of his separation: "Something isn't quite working this body of mine won't takes orders from this will of mine. Look around, I say. But his neck ignores me. His eyes have their own agenda."(1) As his mind leaves the scene of the death bed and flashes backwards through time, the confused narrator initially cannot understand why he views himself "walking backward in the house" or the meaning of the strange mumbling he overhears: "Aid ut oo y'rrah?" (How are you today?) (pp. 6-7). The narrator soon figures out, however, that the "pitiable chirruping" is, in fact, "human speech," and, upon this realization, he immediately attains fluency in a backwards language that turns out to be strangely familiar-indeed, a language he sometimes dreams in (p. 7). Apparently, then, these counter-intuitive thought processes are hot new, but rather are a latent component of Tod's unconscious (that sometimes surface in dreams) that have also dictated, somewhere in the past, his wakeful experience. What is a counter-intuitive world for the narrator, however, is actually the intuitive world for his double and the people of his double's memories: "We're getting younger ... And all the other people are getting younger too, but they don't seem to mind, any more than Tod minds. They don't find it counter-intuitive, and faintly disgusting, as I do ... The other people, do they have someone else inside them, passenger or parasite, like me?" (p. 8). As the narrator (Tod's "passenger" consciousness) negotiates his alien status in the rewinding world of memories, he realizes that that which is insane to him is actually sane to his double and to those who share this world with his double: "Tod is sane, apparently, and his world is shared. It just seems to me that the film is running backwards."

That the narrator views this world as counter-intuitive indicates that he is on the side of Tod's split personality that managed to avoid indoctrination in Nazi ideology. …

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