“A Man Lies Dreaming” by Lavie Tidhar— The Novel that Stunned and Scandalized Europe

a man lidx dreaming

Tidhar, Lavie. “A Man Lies Dreaming”, Melville House, 2016.

The Novel that Stunned and Scandalized Europe

Amos Lassen

Wolf is a low-rent private detective who wanders London’s gloomy, grimy streets while he is haunted by dark visions of a future that could have been. He thinks about a dangerous present populated by British Fascists and Nazis escaping Germany. Shomer, a pulp fiction writer, is held in a concentration camp, imagining another world. And when Wolf and Shomer’s stories come together, we are drawn into a novel that is both shocking and profoundly haunting.

This is a darkly comic alternate history set in the late 1930s, where Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany and was ejected in a coup. He then fled to London where he now works as an unlucky and unhappy private investigator. As the novel opens, he’s been hired by a rich Jewish heiress to track down her missing sister. But this alternative history exists only in the imagination of a pulp crime writer imprisoned in Auschwitz.

Author Lavie Tidhar tells us in his extensive historical notes that there is a long tradition of pulp fiction that has been used by Jewish writers to explore and address issues relating to the Holocaust. Sometimes the approach taken can be shocking and includes sexual exploitation of Jewish people, but it is important to know that this has a long history in enabling a culture to come to terms with its past. We have also seen this in popular culture as well as ‘high’ culture, and this is explicitly referred to in the novel, in the debate between two Jewish writers, one based on Primo Levi, the other on a pre-eminent writer of pulp fiction.

By using fiction and transposing real historical characters, Tidhar is able to explore them in isolation from their context. With no power removed, Hitler becomes a comic figure full of impotent rage and frustrated ambition. This is a Hitler who is at the mercy of the system rather than in charge of it and this makes him pitiable. As the novel progresses we see that this hatreds are insignificant and he begins to lose his grip on reality. The footnotes explain that this portrayal has been extensively researched and grounded in contemporary accounts of Hitler’s life and experiences and these give the book authenticity. There are other senior Nazi figures here and they are at the edges of the law. Rudolf Hess runs a nightclub, Klaus Barbie is involved in people trafficking and Adolph Eichmann becomes the puppet of a U.S. Government seeking to overthrow the Communist regimes that have taken over Europe.

This is a Holocaust novel and so much more. It has much to say about contemporary society, particularly in how we treat immigrants and minorities. In Tidhar’s alternative London, We see that Oswald Mosley is on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. His Blackshirts are a personal paramilitary force who are busy with violent assaults on members of the Jewish community to which the authorities turn a blind eye. A great deal of Mosley’s major political speech in the novel is drawn from genuine speeches and this shows just how little has changed in our attitudes to those who don’t conform.

The Auschwitz sequences are written in such a way as to highlight the brutal treatment of the Jewish community. If we didn’t know it was a historical reality, one would have a hard time finding it Believable that human beings could treat one another in such a way and this makes those parts of the novel appear to be dreamlike rendering those sections of the novel more dreamlike and somewhat unconvincing.

“A Man Lies Dreaming” is not an easy read. There are BDSM sex scenes featuring Hitler, however darkly funny they are written. But this is a rich and complex work that gives us a great deal while reading. The narrative is framed like this: a Jewish man, dying in a concentration camp, comforts himself by imagining Hitler as I have already explained. We have two layers occurring side by side: the inhuman brutality of the camp and the alternative Hitler (alias Wolf) who us investigating a missing person case in London. It is Tidhar’s talent that makes this work and makes Wolf an engaging character that we hate.

The book is politically subversive, and explicit, in both the framing story and the imagined life of Hitler-as-private investigator. Of course there are times when Wolf/Hitler faces off against antagonists that make him look slightly less repugnant in comparison, but it’s a matter of power. The novel has been collecting prizes in Europe as the winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, it has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award and is a Guardian Best Science Fiction Book of the Year and a Scotland Herald Best Crime Novel of the Year.