The Representation of Perpetrators in Time’s Arrow and The Reader

March 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

In order to analyse the representation of perpetrators in Holocaust literature, I am going to be looking at Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. I would argue that both authors treat the perpetrators in a very measured manner, meaning that the reader can to a degree understand them and their actions, which in turn help us to learn, but never completely feel sympathy for them. This is important because of the ethical questions surrounding the representation of the perpetrator within Holocaust literature: “how does one depict the correlative element of the atrocity, that of the perpetration of the suffering?” [1] Erin McGlothlin argues, “…there is a sense that to focus on critically on the perspective of the perpetrator would at best be unseemly and at worst a betrayal of the memory of the victims…” [2], which is why the ways that both Amis and Schlink construct their perpetrators is so fundamental.

It is first important to establish what exactly a perpetrator is- Raul Hilberg in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-45 defines the perpetrator as anyone who ‘played a specific role in the formulation or implementation of anti-Jewish measures.’ [3]

When first considering the evidence within both texts that shows the authors creating a character that can be understood, in both The Reader and Time’s Arrow, we are given the image of a perpetrator who is an every-day person, not a psychopath, as we would naturally expect. This can first be seen when considering the protagonist of Time’s Arrow, a simple doctor, who is described by his own conscience as follows: “I’ve come to the conclusion that Odilo Unverdorben, as a moral being, is absolutely unexceptional, liable to do what everybody else does, good or bad, with no limit, once under the cover of numbers.” [4] Here Amis’ use of the adjective “unexceptional” is striking as it subverts the readers natural expectations of what a perpetrator is, someone who is highly exceptional and evil. In addition to this, Amis allows his perpetrator to assume many different, normal identities and names throughout the novel, for example “Tod T. Friendly” [5] and “John Young” [6]. More convincingly, the backwards structure of Time’s Arrow emphasises a feeling of lack of control, suggesting that the novel’s protagonist has had to act in such a way. This highlights the idea that the perpetrator can be an ordinary person who has become part of the genocidal machine. Comparatively, in The Reader, Schlink’s description of Hanna’s exterior makes her seem like a normative every day woman. Hanna is described in the novel as follows: “Her shoulder-length, ash-blonde hair was fastened with a clip at the back of her neck. Her bare arms were pale…High forehead, high cheekbones, pale blue eyes, full lips that formed a perfect curve without any indentation, square chin. A broad-planed, strong, womanly face.” [7] Here Schlink’s lack of spirited or dynamic adjectives convey Hanna’s exterior as rather unremarkable, allowing us to view her as an unextraordinary, conventional human being. More convincingly, because of her job as a Tram conductor, Hanna is often presented to us in a uniform, which further familiarises and standardises her character.

Additionally, in both texts, the reader is able to understand the perpetrator more and begin to accept that they are not necessarily the worst kind of people, because unlike characters such as “Uncle Pepi” [8], a representation of Nazi psychopath Josef Goebbels, who is shown to revel in the mass violence and destruction of the Holocaust, our perpetrators are both shown to have coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms convey the idea that Hanna and Unverdorben do not actually enjoy or want to be a part of the perpetration of the innocent. This can first be seen when considering the doctor in Time’s Arrow, who develops a split personality to cope with the shockingly brutal and inhumane nature of his own actions. In her essay The Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva discusses the Holocaust, stating “The abjection of Nazi crime reaches its apex when death, which, in any case, kills me, interferes with what, in my living universe, is supposed to save me from death: childhood, science, among other things.” [9] This abjection of doctors killing instead of saving lives caused the doctors to develop split personality disorders as a coping mechanism, and Amis’ exploration of this can be likened to that of Robert J. Lifton. In Nazi Doctors Lifton argues, ““Splitting” or “dissociation” can thus denote something about Nazi doctors’ suppression of feeling, or psychic numbing, in relation to their participation in murder.” [10] Amis is able to embody the split personality disorder within his text, by his use of inverted temporal narration, which means the narrator is separate from the character of the doctor. However, at the beginning of the novel’s fifth chapter the previously separate narrator becomes temporal with the doctor: “Now. I, Odilo Unverdorben…” [11] Due to the fact that the overall narrative of the novel is backward, we can interpret this joining of the two selves as the splitting of the two selves that arguably occurred amongst Nazi doctors. Sara Horowitz argues: “Amis’s device gives symbiotic existence to Robert J. Lifton’s idea of the Nazi doctor’s second self…the normal and the Auschwitz self.” [12]

Whilst this is not as strong of a concept in The Reader, I would argue that a coping mechanism for Hanna could be having the young girls read to her. This is something that we learn during the court scene, when the victim says: “Yes she had her favourites, always one of the young ones who was weak and delicate, and she took them under her wing and made sure that they didn’t have to work, got them better barracks space and took care of them and fed them better, and in the evenings, she had them brought to her. And the girls were never allowed to say what she did with them in the evening. And we assumed she was… also because they all ended up on the transports, as if she had had her fun with them and then had got bored…one day one of them finally talked, and we learned that the girls read aloud to her…” [13] Here Hanna is described to take on the familiar maternal role, feeding, protecting and caring for the girls, the embodiment of Hanna as a mother here makes it almost impossible for the reader to imagine her intentions are ill, as we are all familiar with the positive connotations of motherhood and mothers. The argument can be made that this ritual of having the girls read aloud to her becomes a coping mechanism for Hanna because throughout the novel we see just how much pleasure she gains from being read to and we understand that the world of literature is an escape for her. There is evidence of this when Michael recounts reading War and Peace to Hanna: “I read her War and Peace… Again, Hanna became absorbed in the unfolding of the story. But it was different this time… she didn’t make Natasha, Andrei, and Pierre part of her world, as she had Luise and Emilia, but entered their world the way one sets out on a long and dazzling journey…” [14] More convincingly, Michael later justifies this argument: “Ask her if she chose the weak and delicate girls, because they could never have stood up to the work on the building site anyway, because they would have been sent on the next transportation to Auschwitz in any case, and because she wanted to make that final month bearable.” [15]

In contrast to this, Amis and Schlink both also use techniques to detach the reader from their perpetrator characters. In this way, the sexual power of the perpetrator is something which is prominent in both texts. I would argue that this is a technique that the authors use to distance the reader from the perpetrator, as in this way they are presented in a predatory manner, making them seem more capable of their later horrific crimes in the Holocaust. In Time’s Arrow power forms one of the novel’s persistent motifs, associated with not just doctors but also sex. This can be seen because the first time that Tod has sex with Irene he experiences a compelling sense of power: as he “loomed above her” [16], he is “flooded by thoughts and feelings I’ve never had before. To do with power.” [17] In this way sex offers the protagonist “instant invasion and lordship” [18], a feeling he also gets when carrying out surgery. The lust for power that Unverdorben shares with his Nazi comrades also epitomises his relations with his wife, Herta, who is harshly described as “his chimpanzee required to do housework naked, on all fours.” [19] The intrinsic link that Amis sets up between his perpetrator and the act of sexual power is most strikingly displayed to the reader through the highly caustic fact that as soon as Unverdorben acquires heightened physical power rounding up the Jews for the Waffen-SS Unit he joins, he becomes sexually impotent. This is overtly crystallised by Amis’ use of the two short and harshly clarifying sentences in the line, “I am omnipotent. Also impotent.” [20]

In The Reader we see the exploration of the sexual power of the perpetrator in the taboo older woman/ underage male relationship that “fifteen” [21] year old Michael and thirty-six year old Hanna share. Hanna’s domination over Michael is immediately shown to us in their first meeting, Michael describes her helping him as an “assault” [22] as she “seizes” [23] his arm, which instantly foreshadows the attack on his masculinity that this subversive relationship will cause. This, teamed with his description of himself as “being so weak” [24], in contrast to his likening of Hanna to “a horse” [25], an animal synonymous with strength and physical power, confirms their roles within the relationship with Michael yielding to Hanna’s sexual ascendency. We are most overtly shown the full extent of Hanna’s sexual power over Michael, when he describes the physical act of sex between the two: “…she looked me over calmly. I turned red…” [26], “…and then she was on top of me, looking into my eyes until I came…” [27] Michael goes on to say, “When we made love, too, she took possession of me as a matter of course. Her mouth took mine, her tongue played with my tongue, she told me where to touch her and how, and when she rode me until she came, I was there only because she took pleasure in me and on me.” [28] Here the repeated image of taking makes Hanna seem like a predator devouring her prey, highlighting the dangers of her sexual power. Michael goes on to confirm the assumption that Hanna’s sexual power makes her different, distancing her from the reader, when he says, “Years later it occurred to me that the reason I hadn’t been able to take my eyes off her was not just her body, but the way she held herself and moved.” [29]

The most convincing way that Amis and Schlink create disassociation between the reader and the perpetrators of both texts is by of the fact that we do not hear either story from the point of view of the perpetrator. In the case of Time’s Arrow we are told the majority of the story from the perspective of the doctor’s conscience: “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.” [30] In The Reader we are told the whole story from the perspective of Michael, who at the commencing of the story is just fifteen years old: “When I was fifteen, I got Hepatitis.” [31] The use of having a separate narrator to the perpetrator is primitive, as it enables the author to pass moral judgement on the actions of the perpetrator. There is evidence of this in Time’s Arrow for example when the conscience speaking of John’s ill-treatment of Irene, admits: “I can’t stand the way he treats her. To him she is- how can I put this?- Soon assimilated.” [32] Similarly, in The Reader when Michael learns of the true horrors of Hanna’s crimes during her trial, he feels overwhelming guilt and questions whether he is a bad person for falling in love with someone capable of such evil: “…then I was guilty of having loved a criminal.” [33] Therefore, having a separate narrator keeps us a reader on the outside looking in, we are not connected with the perpetrator and thus, like the narrators we are able to see their actions as overwhelmingly unacceptable and horrific. In the case of The Reader many critics have discussed this technique, with Kristina Brazaitis noting, “Hannah remains remote, ambiguous, impenetrable and mysterious” [34] and Heidi M. Schlipphacke remarking, “The reader never gains access to Hanna outside the gaze of the protagonist Michael.” [35]

In conclusion, I would argue that the perpetrators of the novels Time’s Arrow and The Reader: Unverdorben and Hanna are extremely three-dimensional, well developed characters. This is a technique used by Amis and Schlink to enable us as readers to understand and comprehend the capability of their actions, but also be distanced from them so that we do not fully sympathise with them, ensuring that we cannot betray the actual victims of the holocaust. This enables the morality and ethical concerns of representing the perpetrator to be quelled, but at the same time allows us all to be greater educated on the subject of the holocaust. After all, how can we as individuals change for the better or prevent such an abomination from happening again, unless we hear about the perpetrators. This argument is shared by many modern Holocaust critics, and is expressed by Tim Cole and Robert Ehrenreich in their work, The Perpetrator- Bystander- Victim Constellation: Rethinking Genocidal Relationships: “it is through the study of those responsible for the instigation and implementation of the destruction process that the reasons for its occurrence may best be understood.” [36] I would contend that the most successful way Amis and Schlink allow us to understand, but not fully sympathise with the perpetrators is through their foregrounding of the everyday image of the perpetrator. As this is something which really confronts the reader, making us assess our own behaviour, as we question whether in that position could we to have been a perpetrator. As Bauer put it in his speech to the German parliament in 1998: ‘the most horrible thing about the Shoah is in fact not that the Nazis were inhuman, the most horrible thing about it is that they were indeed human, just as human as you and I are.’ [37]

  1. McGlothlin, E- Theorising the Perpetrator in Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ & Martin Amis’ ‘Time’s Arrow’. From: Spargo, R.C. & R.M. Ehrenreich (eds)- After Representation: The Holocaust, Literature and Culture, New Jersey & London, Rutgers University Press, 2010, p,.210-230. Pg. 210
  2. McGlothlin, E- Theorising the Perpetrator in Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ & Martin Amis’ ‘Time’s Arrow’. Pg 213
  3. Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933- 1945, New York, Aron Asher Books/ Harper Collins, 1992, Pg. ix
  4. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Vintage Books, London, 2003. Pg. 164-5
  5. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 14
  6. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 107
  7. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Orion Books, Great Britain, 1998, Pg. 10
  8. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 128
  9. Kristeva, Julia, Approaching Abjection, from Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia Press, New York, 1982, 1–30. Pg. 13
  10. Lifton, Robert J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, Basic Books, New York, 1986. Pg. 419- 420
  11. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 124
  12. Horowitz, Sara R. Voicing the Void: Muteness and Memory in Holocaust Fiction, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1997. Pg. 193
  13. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 115
  14. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 68
  15. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 116
  16. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 45
  17. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 45
  18. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 59
  19. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 159
  20. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 148
  21. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 13
  22. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 2
  23. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 2
  24. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 2
  25. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 69
  26. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 22
  27. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 23
  28. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 31
  29. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 13
  30. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, Pg. 13
  31. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 1
  32. Amis, Martin, Time’s Arrow, 95-95
  33. Schlink, Bernhard, The Reader, Pg. 133
  34. Brazaitis, Kristina, On Re-reading ‘The Reader’: An Exercise in Ambiguity.- From: Journal of the Australian Universities Language and Literature Association 95, 2001, p. 75-96. Pg. 90
  35. Schlipphacke, Heidi M., Enlightenment, Reading and the Female Body: Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Der Vorleser’, Gegenwartsliteratur 1, 2002 Pg. 314-315
  36. Ehrenreich, Robert M. & Cole, Tim, The Perpetrator-Bystander-Victim Constellation: Rethinking Genocidal Relationships.- From: Human Organization, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Fall 2005), pp. 213-224, Published by: Society for Applied Anthropology, [Accessed 09/01/18] Pg. 6
  37. Bauer,Yehuda, Rethinking the Holocaust, United States of America, Yale University Press, 2002, Pg. 26
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