Grappling with a Timeless Problem

Matthew Olshan

The early drafts of Marshlands read like a classical tragedy: Gus, a well-intentioned military doctor, is deployed to a war zone where his allegiance to his own empire is tested by a deep affinity for the tribal people he finds there. Torn between the conflicting demands of duty and conscience, he makes a choice that proves to be his undoing.

Sophocles’ Antigone was one of my early touchstones. I admired the devastating symmetry at the play’s core: the way a body left unburied on the dusty Theban plain was counterbalanced with Antigone’s live burial. I studied the technique with an eye toward stealing it for my novel.

Alas, Marshlands’ symmetries weren’t very devastating. I liked each separate section well enough, but there was something forced in the way the story’s gears ground so studiously towards Gus’s fall.

It occurred to me that the endpoint of his ruin didn’t interest me nearly as much as its origins. But how was a story supposed to fly like an arrow to that?

For a long time, I was stuck.

olshan3d_wipThe breakthrough came by way of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, which was a shared passion of two friends: Walter Benjamin, the literary philosopher, and Gershom Scholem, the eminent scholar of Jewish mysticism.

Scholem owned the painting, but it fascinated Benjamin, too, who saw it as a portrait of the angel of history:

“His face is turned toward the past…But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

By “Paradise,” I took Benjamin to mean Eden; the painting represented the angel’s violent expulsion from a realm of innocence.

Klee’s Angelus Novus became a kind of totem for Marshlands. It suggested a paradoxical new structure: backwards-looking, but somehow still forwards-moving. I imagined Gus swept up, like Klee’s angel, in a disastrous military adventure. As events outstripped him—distorting him into a man he didn’t recognize—Gus would fix his gaze on his earliest days in the service, when he imagined himself to be an agent of progress.

My job would be to follow that gaze backwards in time. I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, so I turned to an old friend for advice: Martin Amis’s novel Time’s Arrow.

* * *

Reading Time’s Arrow is like watching a film in reverse. This is a world where food comes up from the toilet and is ultimately spat out, bite by bite, on the plate; where doctors take perfectly healthy patients and methodically wound and sicken them; and where lovers commence an affair with a tearful rupture, only to work their way back through romance, and ultimately, to ignorance of each other’s existence.

As the strange old man from the novel’s opening pages becomes younger, and his job as a doctor in an inner-city clinic unspools, the reader discovers disturbing clues to the man’s past. Nightmares; the inability to be intimate with women; a mysterious letter that arrives once a year, filling him with dread — all of these clues lead ultimately to the Nazi death camps, where he served, as a young man, in the infamous medical corps.

By the time the novel arrives at Auschwitz, the reader’s training in reading a backwards-moving world is put to a final test. Corpses materialize from the ovens; heap themselves up in a gas chamber; then come twitching to life, emerging, alive and frightened, only to be marched back to the selection ramp, where they’re reunited with their families.

In the effect-and-cause world of Time’s Arrow, death camps are places of healing. The narrator delights to recount so many lives saved, so many families reunited, a world knit back together by the grace of fire, explosions, racial hatred. Unlike the doctors from the beginning of the book, whose reverse healing ruins the healthy, the heroic Nazi doctors resurrect the numberless dead, undoing mass murder, torture, rape.

The perversity of all of this is intended to drive a reader into a rage—and it works—but reading Time’s Arrow with Marshlands in mind revealed a narrative hazard I hadn’t noticed before: rewinding a character’s life bestows a strange kind of immunity. Everything that was going to happen had already happened; moral responsibility disappears when transgressions no longer lead to consequences.

* * *

I liked how the movement backwards in time gave Time’s Arrow a sense of inevitability—that much, at least, was compatible with a classical tragedy. But how was I to achieve this effect without excusing Gus from the ramifications of his actions?

On the one hand, I saw him as a victim of history, a refugee from the “storm of progress;” but he was also an active agent of that storm—a perpetrator, if an unwilling one.

I had to start somewhere, so I tried a simple experiment: reversing the order of the novel’s three sections.

Right away, I knew I was on to something. Gus’s release from prison as a broken old man—his uniform hanging from his hips and shoulders, the wristband of his watch long disintegrated—was an evocative starting point. And leaping back in time provided me with a crucial narrative advantage: the surprise of who this man used to be; who he was…before.

Of course, shuffling the sections also had the effect of undoing the plot. Suddenly, instead of building over the course of the novel, the dramatic tension was gone. For Marshlands to work, the reader’s sense of Gus as a victim would have to slowly give way to an awareness of his complicity in the crimes against his beloved marshmen, even as the inexorable march backwards in time effectively unpunished him.

I didn’t know how I was going to do all that—at least, not yet—but throwing the lever and reversing time down its tracks had finally revealed my missing symmetry: the exigency of empire makes perpetrators of even well-intentioned men like Gus; whereas time makes victims of us all.
Matthew Olshan is the author of several books for young readers, includingFinnThe Flown Sky, and The Mighty Lalouche. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.