Dec 12, 2018 in Informative

Understanding the Holocaust by Backwards Experience Essay

To describe the Holocaust in an appropriate way has been a difficult task for many writers since this theme emerged in literature. German philosopher Theodor Adorno did not believe that it was ever possible to create an art or poetry work out of Auschwitz. In his view, the theme of Holocaust was too horrific to describe. But if writers removed some from that reality, it would be unjust towards the victims of the Holocaust (Morse 28).

Martin Amis, the author of the novel Time’s Arrow, managed to find an unusual approach to describe the horror of Holocaust – he narrated the events backward. The main character of this novel lived his life in reverse order. The writer began the novel with the death of the main character in the late 20th and went through the time of his life to the day he was born. He was living inside the Nazi doctor, named Odilo Unverdorben who was his protagonist. Though the character was inside another person he could not control or influence him. All the character could do was to follow his protagonist and experience events of his life vice versa. Thus the Holocaust experienced by the main character was also reversed. This essay attempts to discern the sense of the Holocaust described by the technique of backward narration. It also discusses critical issues linked to the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow and assesses the author’s description of the Holocaust.

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Critical Issues Linked to the Holocaust in Time’s Arrow

As the work of Martin Amis appeared in public, it evoked different critical reactions. Some critics gave their approval and praise to Amis’ style of backwards narration; others strongly criticized him and rejected his approach. One of the reasons for criticism was the sensitivity of the topic. The theme of the Holocaust was definitely a very delicate issue from the moral viewpoint. Martin Amis was criticized for his desire to draw public attention to his literary work by exploiting the theme of the Holocaust, which was a popular topic among readers. Apart from that, Amis was not a Jew, and it was questionable if he could write on this topic at all (Vice 13-14). However, these critical issues in Time’s Arrow were not the major focus of the critics.

The most critical issue in Amis’ work was his approach of backward narration. According to the critics who disapproved that approach, describing the Holocaust in such manner ignored the moral concern for presenting the horrific event. The author of Holocaust Fiction, Sue Vice noted that the very title of the novel, Time’s Arrow, suggested that the content of the story was subordinated to the literary form. In other words, the title indicates the reversion of time and events order by means of backward narration rather than shows the central theme of the work. The largest portion of the novel Time’s Arrow depicts the Nazi life in the United States after World War II. It begins with the introduction of the reversed world, which is determined by the backward narration, and continues with the description of life events that resulted in some funny consequences. Besides, the author of this novel focused rather much on the details of those episodes (Vice 11-12).

Another critic Michiko Kakutani in his article “Books of the Times” also noted that in general the novel Time’s Arrow gave little attention to the theme the Holocaust, but concentrated more on the description of the effects of reversed life. He pointed to the extended setup of the novel with many episodes followed by comic effects. As a result, the reader would be in a state of confusion for a long time before he or she would get the point. Michiko Kakutani concluded that the strategy of backward narration used by Martin Amis would be more appropriate for a short story. Applying that approach for long works such as novels was risky as it could confuse the reader (Kakutani). However, the major weakness of the strategy used by Amis was noted by Sue Vice. According to the critic, the content of a story should not be subordinated to form, but content and form should be linked together.

Some Advantages of Backward Narration in Time’s Arrow

After the criticism of the technique of backward narration it is difficult to imagine that it can have any advantages. However, it can help to solve some narrative problems common to literature about the Holocaust. The major weakness of the Holocaust literature is the deficiency of tension. It is not to say that tension is absent in such literature. On the contrary, the brutality of described Holocaust events is often overwhelming and even stressful for the reader. The problem is that usually the reader is familiar with the historical facts concerning the Holocaust and has his or her expectations of the structure of Holocaust literature, its storyline and the end. As for the structure of Time’s Arrow, it was unknown for the reader as the narrative was reversed. The narrative order was changed, and thus the tension was growing while reading the novel. The author of Holocaust Fiction Sue Vice found it paradoxical that though the story was written vice versa and straightforward, it was still attractive to the reader. The reason for great readers’ interest was a change of structural paradigm of the Holocaust story (Vice 20). Time’s Arrow not only added some intriguing element to the story but also spared the reader from confronting with the most brutal acts of atrocity, which could otherwise result in growing numb to brutality while reading the Holocaust story. At the same time Amis’ novel Time’s Arrow avoided desensitizing its reader. While being forced to reverse horrific events and settle the whole story, the reader was led to realize a greater tragedy. Taking into account numerous works about the Holocaust, backward narration avoids the danger of desensitizing the reader by creating a lasting memorial of the Holocaust in the society.

The Description of the Holocaust by Martin Amis

As it was mentioned before, the Holocaust is a very difficult topic to discuss. However, the author of Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis managed to describe the Holocaust in an unusual way. Everything associated with the Holocaust was turned into reversal. Starvation changed to growth, pain turned into healing, murder became life, and inmates were finally released from prisons (Taylor). The description of the story where the destruction and evil are undone looks very unusual, but encouraging for a reader. At the same time, the author of Time’s Arrow did not imply that the Holocaust should be dismissed. He wanted to highlight the victory of life over death and recovery over loss. This idea is different from the idea of massacre. It is similar to experiencing sadness through memories about people who passed away instead of focusing on their death. The rebirth of Jewish people described by Martin Amis gives a sense of encouragement as it is not focused on horror highlighted in other works.

The picture of victory of life over death demonstrated by Amis is similar to the vision of dry bones in the Book of Ezekiel, the ancient Jewish prophet. That marvelous vision began with a collection of bones that belonged to the Jews. They littered the valley floor, and then, right before Ezekiel’s eyes the bones came together, assembling into skeletons, growing flesh and skin. For a while the bodies remained dead, but then God put breath in them, and the bodies of Jewish people came to life (Ezekiel 37: 1-10).

The novel of Martin Amis attempted to look at the issues of the Holocaust from an unusual angle. Amis presented the Holocaust in such a way that fatalism would not overwhelm his reader. The horrors of Auschwitz were changing for something better. In his novel, Amis also tried to point out that the world people live in is full of diabolical mistakes, and thus, the cosmic law does not work the way it should. In such a way, time in this world is not accurate either. For this reason the approach of backwards narration is justifiable in the novel. Martin Amis also demonstrates that the effects of the Holocaust cannot resist time. People are getting younger, stronger and even taller (Amis, 95).

Finally, the novel Time’s Arrow ends with the depicting of the Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorpen crawling back into his mother’s womb. This picture signified the nature of offense. That ugly and sinful nature came out with the birth (Gantz).

The Apocalyptic Image of the Holocaust

By the time the Holocaust ended the Europe had changed its attitude towards the Jewish nation. It was a slow process but eventually, the Jews were given more rights and allowed to expand their trade. It might seem that the Holocaust was over and would never happen again. But the novel Time’s Arrow indicated the effects of an ongoing crisis, the postmodern apocalypse. This postmodern apocalypse is an apocalyptic image of the Holocaust. The author used a specific literature style to describe this crisis. The main character of the story and narration were separated. The character, Odilo, was involved in the horrific events that caused the Holocaust. However, he refused to acknowledge his guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust, which resulted in the apocalyptic trauma followed by the severe effects. One of the effects was the psychological dissociation. This psychological phenomenon represented apocalyptic separation and emerged in the story to demonstrate the division of self. As a result of this division the protagonist, Nazi doctor, and the narrator, a person who lived inside him, were separated. The psychological dissociation of the character pointed to the disorder caused by the post traumatic stress. The narrator tried to avoid guilt for the Holocaust, he could not remember Nazi doctor’s past and disclaimed the Nazi body and mind. Though the narrator experienced Nazi doctor’s memories, he alienated himself from it. Instead, he focused on the consequences of backward narration during the Holocaust when starvation reversed to growth, pain changed to healing, murder became life. This logic signified Nazi doctor’s desire to reverse the path of the tragedy of the Holocaust. Thus, by undoing his crimes he hoped to avoid moral responsibility (Taylor).

In real life, however, the desire to undo crimes is impossible. The novel’s apocalyptic imagery helps the reader to understand the condition of ongoing crisis. It also tries to suggest the Postmodern society to avoid such crisis in the future. Time’s Arrow warns the mankind about its catastrophic potential to cause apocalypse at the present time. In 1991, when the story was written, the issue of the Holocaust began to slip into history. Today many readers are not concerned about the Holocaust. They may worry about economic crisis or climate change, but the potential of genocide seems very unlikely to the majority of them, particularly in the West. However, the genocide took place at the relatively recent time in Bosnia in Eastern Europe and in African countries such as Sudan and Rwanda. These events should serve for the mankind as a warning about the potential threat of the Holocaust in the modern time. Time’s Arrow focuses largely on the remembrance of the Holocaust, but it also reminds the humankind about possibility of nuclear annihilation. It reminds the nations that those horrific events are still close to the present, and they should not be forgotten.

Time’s Arrow is difficult to understand, but it is worth studying as it may help people to prevent a potential nuclear holocaust. The events of the Cold War in 1960s demonstrated that such holocaust was possible (Taylor). But they also demonstrated that nations were able to resolve conflicts that might lead to apocalypse and prevent the state of ongoing crisis. It is much better to prevent such a crisis than to experience the things Nazi doctor Odilo Unverdorben went through.


The novel Time’s Arrow is a literature work produced by using the approach of backward narration. Although Time’s Arrow has some weaknesses in relation to form and content, it is a unique Holocaust story due to the change of the storyline and the end. The author used the reversal of the Holocaust events to demonstrate the victory of life over death. He also pointed out that the cosmic laws including time were not accurate, and thus the approach of backward narration was justifiable. This approach identified the origin of the nature of offense – it came out with the birth of the character, Nazi doctor. Time’s Arrow also compared the tragedy of the Holocaust with the Postmodern apocalypse. The state of ongoing crisis experienced by Nazi doctor could be a reality for the mankind in the modern world. This would be a terrible reality the Nazi doctor tried to escape. Time’s Arrow suggested preventing the Holocaust apocalypse of any form and bringing the state of ongoing crisis to the end.


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