Review by bookseller and blogger Molly Odintz
W hen a coworker passed along an advanced review copy of Lavie Tidhar’s latest genre bending novel, A Man Lies Dreaming, a few months ago, I immediately took it home and devoured it. I then ordered in his previous mixture of scifi and noir, Osama, set in an alternative reality where 9/11 never happened and Osama bin Laden is a fictional character. In A Man Lies Dreaming, as in his previous novel Osama, Tidhar combines science fiction, alternative history, and the private eye novel; Tidhar brings together so many of my preferred genres, I feel amazed such a thing exists.
A Man Lies Dreaming splits its narrative between Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp fiction, or shund, imprisoned in Auschwitz, and Wolf, a German refugee living in London upon the eve of the Second World War. The reader slowly realizes that Shomer’s perspective is told from within our own historical reality, while Wolf occupies an alternative reality (possibly existing only in Shomer’s dreams).
In Wolf’s reality, the Communist Party wins the 1933 German elections, and Germany’s fascists, non-commie lefties, and wealthier residents of all kinds flee to England. Oswald Mosley, leader of Britain’s fascist Blackshirts, grows in popularity as Britain fears the rise of communism in Germany and xenophobia increases at the influx of refugees. Tidhar uses his depiction of anti-immigrant nativism to brilliantly juxtapose the asylum seekers of the past with the refugees of the present.
A Man Lies Dreaming, insofar as it functions as a detective novel, follows the initially rabidly-antisemitic Wolf as he is hired by a Jewish woman to find her missing sister, smuggled out of Germany by Wolf’s old comrades – former Nazi Party members turned procurers and smugglers. Between Wolf’s ideas and his hairdo, the reader deduces fairly quickly that “Wolf” is an alternative history Hitler, broken by the defeat of his party, and ready for some kinky comfort and a change of pace. Part of the novel’s dark humor rests in watching Hitler’s character slowly lose his identity, his dignity, and even his foreskin, in a perfect use of a long-time detective novel trope – every PI must get beaten up at least once, and preferably more, while on the case.
Shomer’s appearances are brief; he mainly thinks, and suffers. His perspective serves as a grounding force for the bizarre occurrences and black humor of Wolf’s reality. His thoughts serve as a commentary for the style of Wolf’s narrative – as a writer of shund, Shomer wonders about the ability of literature and pulp fiction to portray the suffering he endures.
A semi-fictionalized conversation overheard by Shomer between two historical figures in the Auschwitz hospital, Ka-Tzetnik 135633 and Primo Levi, throws the contrast between pulp and literature into stark relief in their ability to portray “planet Auschwitz.” Primo Levi, scientist and life-long Holocaust memoirist, represents the voice of dour, factual witness – his classic account of the camps, Survival in Auschwitz, focuses on everyday life and arbitrary death, told in a matter-of-fact manner.
Ka-Tzetnik 135633, who wrote several semi-fictional accounts of the Holocaust, argues for the power of genre fiction, whether fantastical, ultra-violent, or pornographic, to represent the emotional truth, physical degradation, and unimaginable suffering of the camps. House of Dolls, Ka-Tzetnik’s most famous work (sadly, out of print in English), is set in a Nazi bordello, and was an early source of information for Israeli teenagers in the 1960s about both sex and the Holocaust. You can read more about Ka-Tzetnik 135633 in this fantastic piece on his Holocaust pulp fiction, published in Tablet.
The contrast between Shomer and Wolf and their differing realities heightens the novel’s pathos. Every occurrence in Wolf’s alternative history timeline throws a starkly contrasting spotlight on the events of actual history. Since the release of Inglourious Bastards, I’ve taken an interest in those alternative realities which, rather than functioning as escapism, act as dramatic irony. These stories bring a reader’s prior knowledge of events into conversation with the narrative – not the reader’s personal experiences, but the semantic memory, the world’s stored knowledge beyond our own experience, of the Holocaust.
One can try to represent the reality of an unimaginable thing, and this is a valuable approach. Or, one can start from the baseline that there is no way to represent the reality of the Holocaust. Approaching this reality obliquely – whether through alternative history, through the stories of survivors, through small stories and lingering consequences, or through pulp and genre fiction – may be the best way to access history as an emotional, physical, and spiritual experience.
Look out later this month for more on detective novels with alternative history timelines! A Man Lies Dreaming comes out March 15th – Pre-order now!