Time's Arrow (novel)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The book recounts the life of a German Holocaust doctor in a disorienting reverse chronology. The narrator, together with the reader, experiences time passing in reverse, as the main character becomes younger and younger during the course of the novel. Amis engages in several forms of reverse discourse including reverse dialogue, reverse narrative, and reverse explanation. Amis' use of these techniques is aimed to create an unsettling and irrational aura for the reader; indeed, one of the recurrent themes in the novel is the narrator's persistent misinterpretation of events. For example, he simply accepts that people wait for an hour in a physician's waiting room after being examined, although at some points he has doubts about this tradition. Relationships are portrayed with stormy beginnings that slowly fade into pleasant romances.
The doctor, Odilo Unverdorben, assists "Uncle Pepi" (modelled on Josef Mengele) in his torture and murder of Jews. While at Auschwitz, the reverse chronology means that he returns the dead to life and heals the sick, rather than the opposite. The broader image presented is that all those that died in the Holocaust are revived and returned to their homes.
What tells me that this is right? What tells me that all the rest was wrong? Certainly not my aesthetic sense. I would never claim that Auschwitz-Birkenau-Monowitz was good to look at. Or to listen to, or to smell, or to taste, or to touch. There was, among my colleagues there, a general though desultory quest for greater elegance. I can understand that word, and all its yearning: elegant. Not for its elegance did I come to love the evening sky above the Vistula, hellish red with the gathering souls. Creation is easy. Also ugly. Hier ist kein warum. Here there is no why. Here there is no when, no how, no where. Our preternatural purpose? To dream a race. To make a people from the weather. From thunder and from lightning. With gas, with electricity, with shit, with fire. (p119-120, Vantage edition, 1992)
Eventually they become children, then babies, and then reenter their mothers' wombs, where they finally cease to exist. One message is that the only positive way to see (or even to comprehend) the holocaust is by looking at it backwards, as beautiful lives are created out of nothingness, rather than destroyed.
As Amis noted in an Author's Note at the beginning of his earlier novel London Fields, he originally considered Time's Arrow as a title for that book. Among the influences Amis acknowledges are the 'famous paragraph' in Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut, which depicts a U.S. air raid on Germany in reverse. He also credits Primo Levi and Isaac Bashevis Singer.