by Martin Amis
This book tells a common story of a man around the time of the Second World War. Born in Solingen, Germany, he was trained as a doctor. He worked in the hospital in Schloss Hartheim, Austria, on the Nazi euthanasia of the disabled. Entered the war, he was sent to the concentration camp in Auschwitz as a camp doctor, administering the procedures of the genocide. After the war, he changed his name and became a refugee in Portugal. From there, he immigrated to USA, changed his identity again to Tod Friendly and worked as a doctor in the Associated Medical Service in New York. There he died. It is not at all an exciting story.
The peculiar treatment of this story is the direction of time. The life of the character was told backward in time, and everything was in reverse motion. During conversation, answers came before the questions. It is quite a new experience reading a story this way. It needs a little adjustment of the mind. But then you could look at this common story in a new perspective.
First he was dying in the hospital. He moved out of the blackest sleep and found himself surrounded by doctors. Then he got better and went back to work. For the hospital routine, he operated on the patients and everyone of them would get cured. First he mangled with their bodies, putting organs back into place, and smoothed the wound. Patients all left the hospital in a much better shape.
He was cruel before he was kind. First he cruelly broke up with his girl friends. Then they were passionately in love. But soon love ceased and he would try to seduce them, before they gradually became strangers.
There are many strange passages describing daily life in reverse: like the crushed ant slowly resurrects upon the lifting of the sole; and blood slowing draining into the split skin which gradually heals with the touch of the knife blade.
The most profound part of the book is the description of the genocide in Auschwitz, in reverse, which gained the acclaim of some book critics of presenting a portrait of the Nazi crime in a new light. Jews came out of the incinerator, got their hair and gold teeth back on, exhaled the carbon monoxide and then got dressed. They got back to the camp, ate something and grew fatter. Then they got on the train and were sent back to the cities where they entered the ghetto and hid in a safe place.
After going through medical training and then childhood, he was united with his mother. Through the end of the life journey, he was a baby growing smaller, and then with tremendous pain on the part of his mother, he entered her and diminished into nothing.
Many people could have gone through a similar life time, if not worse. But when viewed in the opposite direction of the time’s arrow, one could see differently the cause and effect, eventuality and consequences of what we did. It may not help in rectifying mistakes, but it could lead us to think a step ahead of the possible effect of our actions.