A Man Lies Dreaming is a darkly comic alternate history set in the late 1930s, where Hitler never became Chancellor of Germany and was toppled in a coup. Instead, he fled to London where he now works as a down at heel 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.
As Lavie Tidhar‘s extensive historical notes to the novel make clear, there is a long tradition of pulp fiction being used by Jewish writers to explore and address issues relating to the Holocaust. Sometimes the approach taken can be shocking, featuring sexual exploitation of Jewish people, but it has a long history in enabling a culture to come to terms with its past. Popular culture is as much a part of that as ‘high’ culture, and this is explicitly referred to within the novel, in the form of a debate between two Jewish writers, one based on Primo Levi, the other on a pre-eminent writer of pulp fiction.
By fictionalising and transposing real historical characters (as he did in Osama, his novel which includes a series of books about a fictional freedom fighter called Osama bin Laden), Tidhar is able to examine them in isolation from their context. With the trappings of power removed, Hitler becomes a comic figure: all impotent rage and frustrated ambition. A Hitler who is at the mercy of the system rather than in charge of it becomes a figure to be pitied. His hatreds are petty and over the course of the novel his grip on sanity and rationality begins to slowly unravel. The extensive footnotes show that this portrayal has been extensively researched and grounded in contemporary accounts of Hitler’s life and formative experiences, lending the book a high level of authenticity. Other senior Nazi figures also feature, often at the fringes of the law: Hess runs a nightclub, Klaus Barbie is involved in people trafficking and Eichmann becomes the puppet of a US Government seeking to overthrow the Communist regimes that have taken over Europe.
It would be tempting to think of A Man Lies Dreaming as Tidhar’s Holocaust novel, but it is so much more than that. It has much to say about contemporary society, particularly in how we treat immigrants and minorities. In Tidhar’s alternative London, Oswald Mosley is on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. His Blackshirts are a personal paramilitary force, engaged in violent assaults on members of the Jewish community to which the authorities turn a blind eye. .Deliciously, much of Mosley’s major political speech in the novel is drawn from genuine UKIP speeches (as Tidhar revealed when I met him at SRFC at the end of April), showing just how little has changed in our attitudes to those who don’t conform to a narrow idea of Britishness.
Tidhar pulls off a very tricky balance in this novel. The Auschwitz sequences are written in such a way as to highlight the brutal treatment of the Jewish community. But if we didn’t know it was a historical reality, one would be hard-pressed to find it credible that human beings could treat one another in such a way, rendering those sections of the novel more dreamlike and less convincingly real than the alternative London of right-wing bigotry and impoverished refugees.
A Man Lies Dreaming is a difficult and dense novel to read. Some may struggle in particular with the BDSM sex scenes featuring Hitler, however darkly funny they are written (brain bleach is definitely required). But it is a rich and complex work that rewards thoughtful reading and stays with you long after finishing it. It is probably my book of the year so far.
Goodreads rating: 5*