Martin Amis' Booker Prize shortlisted book Time's Arrow is a powerful narration of the life of a Nazi war criminal doctor that explores the concepts of cause and effect, love and domination, perspective and reality, creation and destruction, stereotypes and the individual. The story, told backwards and by a third person but in the first person (you'll have to read it to understand this point), is a truly original method in which to render environment, emotion, and time, and is full of Amis' usual relentless irony and wit.
The relationship of cause and effect is perhaps the most powerful and poignant of all in the universe and something that interests me deeply. The inextricable nature of cause always preceding effect has important ramifications for everything. For one, it means time travel is impossible (which calls into question the central premise of this book; however it is a work of fiction so one need not worry about adherence to fundamentals like universal laws of physics!). Second, it means that we humans can foresee the outcomes of our actions by comparison to prior knowledge and experience. It is our ability to predict cause and effect that allows us to view a world that (mostly) makes sense. If effect could arise before cause then one would have no ability to predict the next event and the world would not make sense. Time's Arrow deals with this problem page by page in its backward tense. Eating involves food going from mouth to plate, just for an example. Interestingly, it is the atrocities of Auschwitz (Josef Mengele and his human experimentation is superbly interwoven into the storyline) that make the most sense in the backward monologue, perhaps because it is an act that made the least sense in reality. This paradox is a particularly difficult setting in which to discuss the dualities of creation and destruction, and also of stereotypes.
Ask anyone what traits are found in the average German and you'll most likely get some gormless statement about them being cold, detached, having clinical precision and adhering to procedural excellence. I never pay much interest to stereotypes of any kind as by definition they are an attempt to ascribe traits about individuals that cannot be readily attributed to the geographic or ethnic bounds in which they are prescribed. However, it is difficult to think the atrocities of the Nazi's and not subsume at least some vision of the generic Germanic traits into your thoughts. It is as Martin Amis says in the acknowledgements of his book, Time's Arrow - "The offence was unique, not in its cruelty, nor in its cowardice, but in its style - in its combination of the atavistic and the modern". Indeed there have been many examples of violence, murder and genocide throughout the ages - the Soviet Terror famines, the crusades and inquisitions, the various genocides of the late 20th century. What sets the Nazi `Final Solution' apart is that far from being a pornographic display of gratuitous violence, the Germans instituted mass murder with production line efficiency. It was the most wicked debasement of human solidarity. Amis captures this throughout, all the while the narrator gets the whole damned world wrong (e.g. the Jews are created by the Nazi's).
In contrast to the generally inconsequential Germanic stereotype, anti-Semitism is without question the most despicable of prejudices, owing to the irrational conjoining of the view that Jews are subhuman and archaic with the belief that they collectively form a planned and organised conspiracy to control the world, country or industry. There is jewish joke that Christopher Hitchens retells in Love, Poverty, and War that goes something like `two old jewish men are sitting on a park bench in Berlin in the early 1930s. One of the two is solemnly reading a Jewish newspaper. The other is scanning a Nazi newspaper, and laughing out loud. Finally the first man stops reading and says, "It's bad enough that you read that pro-Hitler rag. But to laugh at it!" The second responds with a shrug. "What if I read your paper? It tells me about Jewish windows being broken, Jewish shops boycotted, Jewish children beaten up in school. So....if I read the Hitler paper it tells me that we Jews control the Whole world!"' Amis touches on this sentiment lightly, however I felt that the book could have made more of this irony and firmed the historical point of the story with reference to The protocols of the Elders of Zion, the old fabrication that accuses the Jews of, amongst other things, a plot for world domination and thickening their matzos with the blood of a non-Jewish child, and was widely distributed and believed in Germany from the 1920's on. Indeed, Hitler's Mein Kampf refers to the Protocols.
Time's Arrow is a book that makes one restless in their seat, quarrelled in the mind and at times, hollow. The prose, so piercingly truthfully introspective while at the same time completely messing with the order of things, prickles the nerves and forces something of a parallel story to be maintained at all times. This parallel story, of course, was the author's intended understanding of the story. The horror, shame, self loathing, atrocity and death that came from unquestionably implementing the procedural genocide for the cruellest of leaders is not something that can be easily reinterpreted without seeming to slip somewhat into reactionary denialism of the David Irving ilk, or downright offensive misrepresentation. Amis, witty as ever, has managed a unique interpretation that deserved higher accolades than runner-up at the Booker pageant.