Fiction Reviews

A Man Lies Dreaming

(2014) Lavie Tidhar, Hodder, £8.99, pbk, 278pp, ISBN 978-1-444-76294-5


“A twisted masterpiece” says The Guardian.
“Weird, upsetting, unmissable,” says The Telegraph.
And on the back: “Theodor Adorno said that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. To which I would say, yes, but you can still write an excellent novel.” A Man lies Dreaming is that novel” says Phillip Kerr, author of January Window.
“This is a brilliantly, original examination of the holocaust” Catholic Herald.

Here we go again, well almost.  Just as in his award-winning novel Osama, Lavie Tidhar skews reality and fiction, particularly pulp fiction as we are walking the mean streets of London in the 1930s in the company, not of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but down and out German private detective, Wolf, who is a refugee from a Germany where National Socialists have lost the election and the communists have come to power and many have fled, Germans and Jews alike. In a typically nourish opening, and with more than a nod to Raymond Chandler, Wolf’s world is about to get turned upside down when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office looking for help to find her missing sister, Judith. Things are bad enough for Wolf. He used to be somebody. He used to be THE MAN, at least back in Germany. Now he is a displaced nobody, with all the wrong connections. You see, another way to say 'Wolf' in German is 'Adolf', and yes, Hitler is a nobody, a nothing, suspected of several Jack-the-Ripper-like murders of prostitutes who end up dead with a swastika carved into their bodies; and he’s also trying to help his old friend, Sir Oswald Mosley, stay alive long enough to win the next general election and become Prime Minister, leading a fascist party to victory that has swelled to popularity due to the influx of immigrants from Germany. All of these 'cases' are going to see Wolf or Adolf slide further and further down the slippery slope of degradation. He is no better than the Jews were back in Germany under his rule and for some, being Jewish in London isn’t much better. It is almost as if he is a pawn in a giant cosmic game and the Gods have got it in for him.

Or one God in particular, a God in his own mind, in his own imagination, for in Auschwitz, Yiddish author of lurid pulp fiction (known as shund), Shomer Aleichem has nothing left to lose. His family have been taken away from him and destroyed in the great killing machine that is the concentration camp. Most of his friends have died, and death is likely to be his fate too, but while he survives the horrors (and Tidhar does not flinch from showing the everyday horrors of the place in an almost matter-of-fact tone) of Auschwitz his mind still works and imagines what is would be like to be the displaced dictator, alone and friendless, hired by Jews, beaten by police, whipped by a dominatrix, even – well, let’s leave that for the reader to find out.

Tidhar has written a book within a book, worlds within worlds. When, Shomer has the 'good fortune' to injure his leg while digging graves he ends up in the infirmary for a brief respite away from the horrors of everyday existence and hears a debate between Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik who both survived the holocaust and went on to write about it. Our hero, Shomer Aleichem, is based on a real writer- Sholen Aleichem, and Hitler meets real people throughout the novel. Oswald Mosley, the Mitford sisters, Ian Fleming, other high-ranking Nazis, even Leni Riefenstahl turns upon her way to Hollywood to film The Great Gatsby with Humphrey Bogart and tells him, breathlessly that “We’ll always have Nuremberg”. Yes, this novel is playful, it is fun, it is dark, it is horrific, it’s shocking, it oozes sex and violence, and yes it is also unmissable. There have been many books about the Nazis and Hitler winning the Second World War, and many books about the holocaust: recently, we have had two from Martin Amis and Howard Jacobson, and good though they no doubt are, I’ll bet they aren’t as darkly entertaining as this one, which is surely one of the books of the year.

Ian Hunter

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