Backward in time, to humankind's unimaginable crime

Monday Book Review

June 15, 1992|By Sherri Kimmel Diegel

TIME'S ARROW: OR THE NATURE OF THE OFFENSE. By Martin Amis. Harmony Books. 167 pages. $18. MARTIN AMIS, in his seventh novel, once again examines the moral bankruptcy of modern society in clever, shocking prose. Instead of taking on the prospect of nuclear holocaust as he did in 1989's "London Fields," in "Time's Arrow" he holds his smoky, satirical mirror up to the perpetrators of the Holocaust. The niggling thought is this: Does such a novel treatment dignify the solemn subject matter?

Told in backward time, from the death of the protagonist in New England to the wastelands of his preconsciousness in Solingen, Germany, "Time's Arrow" relates the downward spiral toward Auschwitz of a Nazi doctor. Tod Friendly/John Young/Hamilton de Souza/Odilo Unverdorben (the doctor switches identity as he tries to escape his Nazi past) retreats unknowingly into his despicable destiny as his detached soul narrates the tape-in-rewind action.

While the novelty of people walking backward and lines of dialogue appearing in reverse order is amusing, snippets of the protagonist's recurring dreams (in one, a doctor in white tunic and black boots straddles a sea of souls, while another nightmare is "full of souls who form constellations of stars") prime the reader to experience, in an ingenious collision of reality and imagination, history's greatest crime against humanity.

In the 20 pages set in Auschwitz, toward which all events in the book, front to back, are directed, Mr. Amis has created an accurate word-portrait of doomed souls calling for their loved ones as the crematoria light up the sky. In fact, the author's fictional world mirrors the horrific reality experienced by Maurice Baker, a Baltimore resident who endured Auschwitz for more than a year as a teen-ager.

Mr. Baker recalls: "The first thing you asked [upon arrival in the death-camp barracks] is what happened to your family. [A more seasoned inmate] took you out and said, 'Look at the smoke; that is where your family is.' "

Similarly, Mr. Amis' doppelganger narrator describes the Jews "looking for the souls of their mothers and their fathers, their women and their children, gathering in the heavens -- awaiting human form and union."

However, in Mr. Amis' backward world, the souls sift down from the heavens into the incinerators, bodies emerge from the flames and are carted to the gas chambers where they come to life. In other words, the Nazi doctor who places the pellets of Zyklon B in the gas chamber is, as the soul views it in reverse, helping to create life. The reader, knowing otherwise, is welded to the page in horror.

In the same dead-on detail, Mr. Amis portrays his physician protagonist measuring twins and injecting Jews with death-dealing Phenol under the direction of "Uncle Pepi," modeled on Auschwitz's infamous Dr. Mengele. Like Mengele, Pepi is a charming sadist subjecting twins, dwarfs, giants and women to his nefarious medical experiments. Mengele/Pepi also passes judgment, as the Jews arrive at Auschwitz, on who should survive -- for a time -- and who should proceed immediately to the gas chambers.

The facts of the Holocaust, sometimes too overwhelming to comprehend when faced head-on, may be more accessible in a fictional treatment such as "Time's Arrow." Through Mr. Amis' time line, the reader is eased into the experience, dread increasing with the languid pace of a roller-coaster chugging up its first Himalayan hill. Storming down from the peak which is Auschwitz, it coasts to its conclusion in Solingen, birthplace of Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Final Solution, as well as of Odilo Unverdorben, Nazi doctor. As Mr. Amis writes, "Time is heading now toward something. It pours past unpreventably, like the reflection on a windshield as the car speeds through city and forest."

Reading "Time's Arrow," one wonders whether it, or any novelization of the Holocaust, does a service -- or a disservice -- to the haunting memory. So compelling is the question that it seems appropriate to ask some local Holocaust survivors about the value of fictionalizing the experience.

"I am not enamored of Holocaust fiction," says Emmy Mogelinsky, whose parents perished in a death camp in Poland. "I'm not in favor of writing fiction about it because the facts are such that if you tell them honestly I feel they have more power of impact than if you fictionalize it." The program director at Baltimore's Jewish Historical Society pauses, then adds, "As long as we have witnesses still living who can tell the story honestly, that's what we should focus on. When all are gone, then it can be reduced to fiction."

Maurice Baker, who speaks frequently about his experience to Baltimore religious and service groups, is in favor of any means -- fiction or nonfiction -- to get the message out. "Many years went by, and nobody spoke about Auschwitz-Birkenau, even to fictionalize it. It's very important to talk and write about it, for there are people in the United States, Canada and Europe who claim the Holocaust never happened. That's why I feel it is very important."

Let the reader judge.

Sherri Diegel is managing editor of The Hill, alumni magazine of Western Maryland College in Westminster.

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