Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.
An extraordinary story of revenge and redemption, A Man Lies Dreaming is an unforgettable testament to the power of imagination.
After 2013’s wonderful The Violent Century, which I loved, I couldn’t wait to read Lavie Tidhar’s 2014 release A Man Lies Dreaming. Luckily I was in London the week after it was released, so I got to pick up a copy soon after release. And I’m glad I sprung for the hardback version as it’s a beautiful book, physically speaking. The cover is deceptively simple yet very powerful and evocative and is not a dust cover, but has laminated boards, in other words it’s printed directly on the boards. The novel contained within the covers is perhaps not so much beautiful as it is compelling. A Man Lies Dreaming isn’t an easy book to read, at least not for me, but it was absolutely engrossing.
What made book so hard to read, you might wonder? Its protagonist Mr Wolf, a.k.a. Hitler, is the book’s main character and for large sections its narrator as well and this made for a complicated reading experience. From childhood, I’ve been taught that Hitler and his ideologies embody all that is evil. There is no grey area there, Hitler equals evil. So for a book to have its protagonist be an alternate history Hitler, one that still believes everything the real Hitler believed, who is unpleasant, anti-Semitic, arrogant, suffers from a superiority complex, and is just in general a bit off, is a risk and is hard to pull off. Because, how can the reader relate to such a protagonist and read an entire book that focuses on such an unsympathetic and hateful character? In Lavie Tidhar’s case by giving the reader a different character to focus her sympathies on – in the person of Shomer – and by making the mystery plot become ostensibly the core of the narrative. Almost every time I got too uncomfortable with Wolf’s slurs, anti-semitism, and general misanthropy, Tidhar managed to just shift the narrative to Shomer or to create a diversion through a break in the case. In that aspect – and more generally – the book was impeccably paced.
The book has a strong Noir sensibility, reminiscent of Chandler and Hammett. As Shomer is a writer of shund – Yiddish pulp fiction; shund means trash in Yiddish – this isn’t really surprising. You can find the usual dames and mobsters in the narrative and Wolf is your typical, hard-boiled gum shoe, apart from being who he is, of course. The mobsters pitted against each other are Jewish and Nazi’s. Many of the Nazi leaders have escaped now-Communist Germany and moved into the London underworld, using their old contacts to smuggle goods and people out of Germany. Only Wolf seems to have stayed on the right side of the law and even he isn’t much respected by the policemen he encounters. In fact, British politics are in upheaval because the British Union of Fascists led by Sir Oswald Mosley looks set to win the upcoming elections. Mosley’s ideas have gained traction in this alternate Britain and the Brits are becoming more and more resistant to immigrants and Jews. Additionally, political forces within the UK and the US are gearing up to take on the Red Scare now it has gained such solid footing in Germany.
Tidhar heaps layers upon layers of meaning; the exploration of revenge and most importantly redemption, the interesting ‘what if’ of whether the Second World War would have still happened if Hitler had lost the election to the communists in 1932, and the tragedy of Shomer’s story. But what stood out to me most, was the way that the commentary on what happened in the fictional then is valid for what is happening now. We are once again living in a world were there is a big opponent to unify against, though rather than the communists it’s Islamic extremists, and politicians once again are using popular dissatisfaction with their circumstances and their fear of a large conflict to whip up hate, fear and discrimination. There is Farage in the UK and Wilders here in the Netherlands, both of them loudly vilifying immigrants and wanting to close borders. Tidhar shows us two possible ways of how this might work out, directly in the case of Wolf’s alternate world, indirectly through Shomer’s framing narrative. Let’s hope that in our reality we will find a third, better way.
A Man Lies Dreaming is a fascinating narrative. It has left me wondering about Tidhar’s award-winning novel Osama and whether and if so how there are many thematic similarities between these two and if so, which ones. I guess this means I’ll have to scare myself up a copy of that one too. In the meantime, A Man Lies Dreaming is a must-read for anyone that likes books that make them think; it is complex, with plenty of meaty themes to mull over. I hope this book gets the critical acclaim and awards attention it so very much deserves.