A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar has to be the most unusual book I’ve read all year. If it wasn’t for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize I probably wouldn’t have come across it let alone read it, and would therefore have missed a bold, energetic and innovative work of fiction.
Tidar delivers a blend of a pulp-noir tale of seamy city streets, gumshoes and lowlifes with Holocaust fiction and an alternative history of 1930’s Europe. It’s a risky mixture; one that shouldn’t work but, oddly, does.
The scenario imagines that Hitler’s rise to power has been halted and Germany has become a communist state. Most of the leading members of the Nazi party have fled overseas; many of them are now living in London. “Wolf” (the meaning of the name “Adolf”) is among them; living in straightened circumstances as a private detective. Hired by a beautiful Jewish woman to track down her sister, he sets about his task; bending the ears of anyone who will listen to his rabid antisemitic and extreme views. During his investigation he visits brothels and sado-masochistic clubs; gets beaten up several times; discovers a CIA plot to overthrow the German government and becomes a suspect in a Jack the Ripper style series of prostitute murders. Though he bumps into a few of his former chums and rubs shoulders with the Mitford sisters and Oswald Mosley, “Wolf” is a shadow of his former self.
It was pitiful, watching him hobble along, this once-great man, this leader of men, now like a decommissioned solider, blinded by gas, a beggar man, a sleepwalker almost.
This is however only part of the novel. Woven among the London section is the story of Shomer Aleichem, the dreaming man of the title. Before the war he was a writer of lurid pulp fiction. Now he is a prisoner at Auschwitz, using his dreams to put a barrier between him and the nightmare of his situation. His dreams are of Hitler as a detective …
These sections in which Shomer lies on his bed dreaming, give the book a thoughtful, moral aspect which nicely counteracts the fast, page turning delivery of the pulp mystery. Just as the narrative threatens to become ludicrous, Tidhar cleverly pulls away and reminds readers that there is real suffering in the world.
In many ways this is a playful novel. There are some ‘in jokes’ dotted around the text including one scene in which “Wolf” looks upon the London skyline and sees the future…..
Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz lang: huge shining buildings rose amid the squalor of old London. By London Bridge, a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pieced the sky. From the city of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala.
But Tidhar is also making a more serious point. By using real-world references (for those not familiar with London, the giant wheel is of course the London Eye) and actual figures like Primo Levi and Oswald Mosely’s blackshirted supporters) we’re left with the impression this fictional world isn’t totally out of the realms of possibility.
Lavie Tidhar was born in Israel but has lived in many parts of the world including Laos and South Africa. He currently lives in London. His previous novels have been in the science fiction, fantasy genres. A Man Lies Dreaming was published in 2015 by Hodder and Stoughton