Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks, and indeed last week, I will be sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one winner per week. This week it is Lavie Tidhar’s pulp meets alternate history tale A Man Lies Dreaming, which manages to be both a fast paced thriller and a confronting and thought provoking discussion on the prejudice suffered by Jews in the anti-Semitic movement that may still have happened whoever won the Second World War.
As A Man Lies Dreaming opens we are greeted by the diary entries of a private detective named Wolf in London, November 1939 as he describes his latest mission to find a missing woman given to him by, as he says in the very first line, a woman with the face of an intelligent Jewess. Yes, from the off we are given a lead character who is a bit of a bigot, to put it mildly. We are then thrown all the more as we realise that not only is Wolf a rather alternative version of any detective we would want to meet (let alone hire, but his client is desperate) but the London we find ourselves in is a completely alternate one. For a start Oswald Mosley is standing for election and overseas the Nazi’s are not the ruling power, Germany is now a communist country, though still a threat in a very different way.
As we follow Wolf as he takes on the case we are taken deeper and deeper into and under these mean and grimy streets into a world of prostitution and a world where all those who dreamt of dictatorship of Germany, and the world, have now fled and are ruling mini domains in the streets of Soho where not only are people going missing, someone is starting to murder prostitutes and carving swastikas into their bodies; a case which will soon get closer and closer to the one Wolf is looking into.
In Berwick Street the whores were busy at their trade. The watcher in the dark had seen the detective exit his office and speak to the young German whore and to the coloured one, and seen him leave, but he remained behind. He had time. All the time in the world. He eyed the whores.
Yet this is not the only strand of A Man Lies Dreaming for after every few chapters of Wolf’s journey we are sent to somewhere quite different and somewhere horrendously real, Auschwitz. Here in one of the biggest concentration camps during the Second World War, where we know thousands of atrocities were committed, we join Shomer. Shomer was a writer of pulp and noir crimes before he found himself encamped in his horrific surrounds with hundreds of other people. When the world for him there gets too much, which as we read on we get the full comprehension of, he retreats to his slumber and a tale of a villainous dictator who has become a detective on the streets of London. This is both his coping mechanism and way of surviving from day to day no idea if today or tomorrow could be his last.
There is only now, no past, no future, there is only Auschwitz, an island floating on the Polish ground. The dead rise in black ash into the sky, day and night the ovens burn, day and night the trains come laden. And Shomer’s mind retreats into itself, the way it had when he was still a man. For he had been a writer of shund, of pulp, for Haynt and other publishers. He had made his living with his hands, at his desk, writing lies for money.
I found this construction of the novel interesting and also incredibly effective. Firstly there is this sense that Shomer is in the real world dreaming of another world where he can wreak revenge on those who have put him here. Wolf gets sexually abused in an S&M club, tortured not long later and (much worse for his ego) publically humiliated at several social events both over the failure his political and writing careers, the latter seeming to wound him most as many feel he was a one hit wonder. Yet at the same time there is a sense that the alternate Communist lead west could be the ‘reality’ and that horrifyingly Auschwitz is still happening somewhere else just not run by the regime we know. This creates a whole onslaught of concerning if fascinating thoughts in our heads.
The other way in which this is so effective is that, without this sounding weird or offensive, he makes The Holocaust more bite size and digestible while all this other noir adventure and goes on around it. This may sound like it is diluting those holocaust sections or making light of them, it is quite the opposite. Yes there is an irony throughout the novel, yet irony can be quite powerful, as can some of the humour in the utterly horrific – though to clarify this doesn’t happen in the holocaust sections but in the London ones the dark and disturbing can have some darkly funny moments especially as Wolf gets put through the ringer which Tidhar does with quite some zeal. I also think humour can often be used in a very effective way in order to highlight the darkest moments and provide contrast (and some light relief when things get very grim) and heighten the effect which I think A Man Lies Dreaming is a prime example of.
In creating an alternate version of the past, and indeed using many well known names and faces of the day not only do we feel slightly clever for recognising them (when we do, the Mitford’s, Ian Fleming etc) we also see how things could have been horrific in different ways. This again doesn’t detract from how awful things were in the Second World War, rather it highlights the fact that prejudice can poison all forms of society all over the world regardless, and sometimes because of or in spite of, of political agenda’s or historical acts. This is one of the novels lasting thoughts, or at least it was for me.
Not looking he bumped into something soft and full that smelled of expensive perfume. A squeal of delight followed and a familiar female voice said, ‘Wolfy!’
He raised his head and found himself staring directly into the adoring eyes of Unity Mitford.
‘Valkyrie?’ he said. He had always used her middle name.
‘Don’t you recognise me?’ she said, laughing.
Wolf winced. He found he could not draw away from her, his eyes kept searching that sweet, smooth face, the full red lips, the mischievous eyes. She had not changed. Her delicate perfume tickled his nostrils. ‘You haven’t aged a day,’ he said.
What I think Lavie Tidhar does with A Man Lies Dreaming is make an immensely readable book about the unreadable. He mixes hardboiled noir; dystopia and magical realism to create a dark and thought provoking novel, sure to compel the reader whilst making them face the darker sides of humanity. It is a book about war, power, politics, sex and religion whilst being a page turning thriller which gives a new and usual twist on tales of World War II and The Holocaust which manages to entertain and then slap you round the face with reality. I think it is one of the most visceral novels I have read in some time and one which weeks and months later I am still thinking about with a thrill and a shudder, it is quite brilliant. I urge you to read it.
You can hear Lavie and I talking about A Man Lies Dreaming on the Fiction Uncovered FM catch up shows here. I would love to hear from other people who have read A Man Lies Dreaming and what you thought of it. I would also love to know if you have read any of his other novels such as Osama or The Violent Century, or indeed any of his other works – lots to discover from an author who I think we should all be reading much more of.