O do not let time deceive you,
You cannot conquer time.
– W.H Auden
It has always been part of the human condition to feel obsessed, even dwarfed, by the temporal. Think of Eliot’s self-indulgent J.Alfred Prufrock, clawing through the verses with a brittle desperation to reassure himself, the reader, anyone, that there is “time yet for a hundred indecisions.” We unwittingly admired Joyce and Woolf, not only for their unconventional torrent of language, but because they dared to bend the constraints of time – a party, an old lover, the wreck of a marriage, a fractured psychological state, all in one day; so too Stephen Dedalus cast off the grief from his mother and found a substitute father in Leopold Bloom, a day of meat – both human and offal, a day of alcohol and repulsive basal instinct, a day of realisation and the repairing of relations between husband and wife. Woolf and Joyce achieved this control of temporal dimension by cheating, of course, what the day brings in each is a culmination of a chain of previous days, the intertwining of lives and the realisation of previous, unrecorded happenings. Humans are fascinated by the very thing they cannot control: the Existentialists viewed time as an endless, meaningless stretch until the cessation of being; filmmakers have tried to mould it around their narrative (Tarantino’s non-linear chronology in Pulp Fiction provoked fascination, and who watched La Haine in its entirety without realising that Vinz has been shot before the film even begins; leaving Said to relive the events of the previous day?) It is Martin Amis, however, with his fascination for atrocity, for repugnance, for the blackly comic, that courageously and contrivedly launched the arrow of time in the opposite direction.
Following the inverted nature of the novel, it is not until the Afterword that Amis reveals the roots of Time’s Arrow. The title had been previously considered, before the more geographically apt London Fields was chosen, and it was almost discarded again in favour of a phrase of Primo Levi’s: The Nature of The Offense. Amis hints – and the reader senses – that Levi’s suicide, described by Amis as “an act of ironic heroism”, underpins much of Time’s Arrow. Within the Afterword, Amis deftly summarises the paradox of Levi’s death by the defiance of phrasing: “my life is mine and mine alone to take.” Suicide, as noted by Frank Kermode, is “impossible” in a world set firmly in reverse, yet for Levi, and many other victims of the Holocaust, it was a fervent grasp for the last and only available human right, to die on one’s own terms rather than to have it snatched from you in a pugilistic and dictatorial fashion.
Before Auschwitz, there is death, and afterwards, there is birth. The chapters at Auschwitz, into which we unexpectedly regress, are the only ones in the novel which make sense, temporally. This was intentional by Amis – to isolate the happenings at the camp in a novel of vertigo-inducing backwardness, where raping heals rather than harms, tumours are placed in organs and the Jews have gold inserted into their mouths rather than removed – as a sort of “tribute to perverted perfection, 100 percent wrong.” The Auschwitz created by Amis is somehow worse: it pulls us backward through the events, awarding the reader a terrible, fretful omniscience as Odilo Unverboren, our protagonist yet simultaneously not our protagonist, “dreams Jews down from the heavens.” This Auschwitz, with awakened corpses and deliveries of human hair, is less clinical, less perfect in nature than the original, but altogether more sinister. In reality, the past can never be physically relived, but Amis, in his frantic untying of the knots of time, forces us to do just that.
Before Auschwitz, there is death, and this is when we first meet Tod Friendly. He has just awoken from his cessation, “I moved forward, out of the blackest of sleep.” Tod is filled with self-loathing: he is repulsed by his death ridden body, his rapidly declining relationships with women “I was both omnipotent and impotent – powerful and powerless” and even his churchgoing habits, within a reversed chronology, are oleaginous in nature – he takes the money from the collection box. However, we never hear from Tod, or Odilo, as he undertakes his doctoral duties with vile, clinical precision. The voice we hear appears to be an estranged conscience, confirmed by Amis: “the soul he should have had, who came at the wrong time, after it was all too late.” This is a dreadfully bleak insight into those of the Third Reich, possessed as they were of an eerily sterile, robotic nature towards their duty.
And so we regress, through Vietnam and Korea, Auschwitz and World War II, until we reach the novel’s ending, or paradoxically its beginning, with Tod’s birth. The interlinking of the moment of conception and the commencement of waiting for the surety of extinction is, like everything else in the novel, something from which we wish to hide; an incomprehensible facet of the truth. There is the same artifice of innocence at the end of Time’s Arrow as at the beginning, yet this time Amis does not shield the reader: we understand that the baby is a poisonous presence, compared to “a bomb.” If the novel were read backwards, it would certainly not carry the same tumultuous power: events somehow seem more vivid, more terrible, more true, when observed in reverse. The nature of Time’s Arrow is summarised by Amis in a throwaway simile: “Maybe love will be like driving. When people move – when they travel – they look where they’ve come from, not where they’re going.”
Martin Amis has long been fascinated by the Holocaust, once tracing the origins of the moral collapse of modern society to The Third Reich and the Soviet gulags. Since Time’s Arrow’s publication in 1991, he has returned to the wrought iron gates of Auschwitz in The Zone of Interest. When questioned about his preoccupation with Hitler, Amis has declared his allure to be in his “impenetrability”, and indeed, no Historian has ever been able to unravel the motivation of the Holocaust. A chapter in Time’s Arrow begins with stating that “if you multiply zero, or anything, by zero, you still get zero.” This, one feels, is Amis’ own concession in attempting to deconstruct the Hitler myth: whichever theory or idea is offered on the matter, it is never quite plausible: you still get zero.