Time’s Arrow is at least what you’d call a convoluted novel. Well, it might sound like a feisty challenge if you’re a Joyce fan and you’re favorite book is Ulysses. However, as you sink into these pages, assuming no additional detail is available upfront, it becomes strenuous to even last to the end of the phrase. No less beautiful though, given the welcoming and well-placed depths of the language and style.
This is the story of a former Nazi doctor who used to work in the concentration camps torturing people in experiments, now living under a different identity in America. The first-person narrative is puzzling in the beginning because who narrates is the doctor’s harrowed consciousness, self-entitled “soul” in its emotional moments (“I suppose I really am the soulful type. Visualize the body I don’t have, and see this: a sentimentalized fetus, with faithful smile”). The story is told reversely, from the moment Tod Friendly the doctor lives in the US and is on his deathbed back to the moment when he re-enters his mother’s womb and his consciousness is set free, noting it had come embodied either too early or too late. The chapters narrate backwards how Tod escaped to America, how he worked with Mengele (Nicholas Kreditor in the book) and the Jews in the camps, how he enjoyed his childhood with his loving parents in Solingen.
The consciousness acts like a recording machine: observing what the body does, registering the facts from an upper fully distinct plane of existence. As if one were to sit on a cloud and look at the people on Earth, describing their mundanity, their shame and pleasures, assuming their reasons for cruelty. Amis weaves witty ironic remarks with sad monologue exposures, creating an overall labyrinthine canvas running various themes. A striking one is confusion, resulting from the loss of social identity. Tod changes his name various times to escape the punishment after WWII, lives in not so good conditions and dwells inside himself as an introvert and observer. Confusion unleashes a river of guilt best expressed in metaphors of destruction, referring to the killings he participated in. But as everything else in the book, the concepts are inverse as well: in a garden of horrific delights, destruction becomes hard while creation is easy, within the twisted context of creating a new Aryan race while going to great lengths and efforts to destroy the weeds of the unwelcome races. (“The garden was heaven when we started out, but over the years, well, don’t blame me is all I’m saying. It wasn’t my decision. It never is. So Tod’s tears were tears of remorse, or propitiation. For what he’d done. Look at it. A nightmare of wilt and mildew, of fungus and black spot. All the tulips and roses he patiently drained and crushed, then sealed their exhumed corpses and took them in the paper bag to the store for money. All the weeds and nettles he screwed into the soil—and the earth took this ugliness, snatched at it with a sudden grip. Such, then, are the fruits of Tod’s meticulous vandalism. Destruction—is difficult. Destruction is slow.”)
Another pervading theme is sexuality: the body doesn’t openly entertain the idea of being homosexual, has troubling dysfunctional relationships with women and dreams: (“The way Tod feels about men, about women, about children: there is confusion. There is danger. Don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying that things might be less confused, and less dangerous, if he could soberly entertain the idea of being homosexual.”) But these dreams yield scary overwhelming power through the symbols: babies with the hideous power of bombs (associating the torture of pregnant women with the Little Boy, Thin Man and Fat Man bombs launched by the US during the war), dreams of himself as a woman at the mercy of men. The reader might find themselves slightly put off by the grim repetition of words like “trash” and “shit”, but in the end, “where would we be without the trash?” Memory and identity function on life leftovers we hold on to. The memory of war will keep alive the increasingly bearable painting of ordure and flesh. Because in the twisted inescapable manner of things, beauty is made from evil, like Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal.
This is a powerful, linguistically stupendous and remarkably insightful novel. It is delicate, demanding attention and reading equilibrium in order to understand the acuteness of its words, the redeeming through time. Because it’s important to remember “if you ever close a deal with the devil, and he wants to take something from you in return—don’t let him take your mirror.”