Martin Amis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize just once, in 1991, for this highly inventive portrait of a Nazi war criminal, whose life story is told in reverse

Dr Tod T. Friendly has just died. Then, after weeks spent recovering in hospital, he is sent home to his affable, melting-pot, primary-colour existence in suburban America.

From the fresh-cut lawns of his retirement to the hustle of New York, and then the boat back to war-torn Europe, Friendly carries with him a secret. Trapped in his body from grave to cradle, Friendly’s consciousness can only watch as he struggles to make sense of the good doctor’s most ambitious project yet – the final solution.

In Time’s Arrow events occur in a reverse chronology, as time races into the past and the main character becomes younger and younger. Former – or soon-to-be – Nazi, Dr Friendly, is possessed of two separate voices, one running backward from his death, the other running forward, in a vain attempt to flee his inescapable past.

Published in the UK by Jonathan Cape.

Publication date and time: Published

I moved forward, out of the blackest sleep, to find myself surrounded by doctors … American doctors: I sensed their vigour, scarcely held in check, like the profusion of their body hair; and the forbidding touch of their forbidding hands - doctor’s hands, so strong, so clean, so aromatic. Although my paralysis was pretty well complete, I did find that I could move my eyes. At any rate, my eyes moved. The doctors seemed to be availing themselves of my immobility. They were, I sensed, discussing my case, but also other matters having to do with their copious free time: hobbies, and so on. And the thought came to me, surprising in its fluency and confidence, fully formed, fully settled: How I hate doctors. Any doctors. All doctors. Consider the Jewish joke, with the old lady running distractedly along the sea shore: Help! My son the doctor is drowning. Amusing, I suppose. Her pride, I suppose, is amusing: it is greater than her love. But why the pride in these doctor children (why not shame, why not incredulous dread?): intimates of bacilli and trichinae, of trauma and mortification, with their disgusting vocabulary and their disgusting furniture (the bloodstained rubber bib, hanging on its hook). They are life’s gatekeepers. And why would anyone want to be that?

The doctors around my bed were, of course, in leisure-wear; they gave off a fuzz of suntanned self-possession, together with the unanimity that comes from safety in numbers. Given my circumstances, I might have found their manner insultingly casual. Yet I was reassured by the very vapidity of these doctors or joggers or bodybuilders, these vigour-experts - something to do with their 3 unsmiling pursuit of the good life. The good life, at least, is better than the bad life. It features wind-surfing, for example, and sweet deals in futures, and archery, and hang-gliding, and fine dining. In my sleep I had dreamed of a … No, it wasn’t like that. Let me put it this way: presiding over the darkness out of which I had loomed there was a figure, a male shape, with an entirely unmanageable aura, containing such things as beauty, terror, love, filth, and above all power. This male shape or essence seemed to be wearing a white coat (a medic’s stark white smock). And black boots. And a certain kind of smile. I think the image might have been a ghost-negative of doctor number one - his black tracksuit and powerpack plimsolls, and the satisfied wince he gave as he pointed at my chest with a shake of his head.

1950s busy hospital ward.

Time now passed untrackably, for it was given over to struggle, with the bed like a trap or a pit, covered in nets, and the sense of starting out on a terrible journey, towards a terrible secret. What did the secret have to do with? Him, with him: the worst man in the worst place at the worst time. I was definitely becoming stronger. My doctors came and went, with heavy hands and heavy breath, to admire my new gurgles and whimpers, my more spectacular twitches, my athletic jolts. Often, a nurse was there, alone, in adorable vigil. Her cream uniform made a packety sound - a sound in which, I felt, I could repose all my yearning and my trust. Because by this stage I was remarkably improved, feeling really tiptop. Never better. Sensation and all its luxuries returned first to my left side (suddenly) and then to my right (with gorgeous stealth). I even won praise from the nurse by lithely arching my back, more or less unassisted, when she did her thing with the pan … Anyway I lay there, in a mood of quiet celebration, for however long it was, until the evil hour - and the orderlies. The golfing doctors I could handle, the nurse was an unqualified plus. But then came the orderlies, who dealt with me by means of electricity and air. There were three of them. They were unceremonious. They hurried into the room and bundled me into my clothes and stretchered me into the garden. That’s right. Then with the jump 4 leads, like two telephones (white - white-hot), they zapped my chest. Finally, before they went away, one of them kissed me. I think I know the name of this kiss. It is called the kiss of life. Then I must have blacked out.

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And when I came to it was with an audible pop in the ears, and a rich consciousness of solitude, and a feeling of love and admiration for this big stolid body I was in, which even now was preoccupied and unconcerned, straining out over the rose bed to adjust a loose swathe of clematis on the wooden wall. The big body pottered on, with slow competence: yes, it really knows its stuff. I kept wanting to relax and take a good look at the garden - but something isn’t quite working. Something isn’t quite working: this body I’m in won’t take orders from this will of mine. Look around, I say. But his neck ignores me. His eyes have their own agenda. Is it serious? Are we okay? I didn’t panic. I made do with peripheral vision, which, after all, is the next best thing. I saw curled flora swooping and trembling, like pulses or soft explosions in the side of the head. And a circumambient pale green, barred and embossed with pale light, like … like American money. I pottered on out there until it began to get dark. I dumped the tools in the hut. Wait a minute. Why am I walking backwards into the house? Wait. Is it dusk coming, or is it dawn? What is the - what is the sequence of the journey I’m on? What are its rules? Why are the birds singing so strangely? Where am I heading? 

A routine, in any event, has certainly established itself. It seems I’m getting the hang of things. I live, out here, in washing-line and mailbox America, innocuous America, in affable, melting-pot, primary-colour, You’re-okay I’m-okay America. My name, of course, is Tod Friendly. Tod T Friendly. Oh I’m there, I’m there in Salad Days, or outside Hank’s Hardware World, or on the patch of grass by the white town hall, with my chest thrust out and hands on hips and a kind of silent ho-ho-ho. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Newly constructed suburban homes in dusk, circa 1950s.