When one brings up Lavie Tidhar in conversation, the subject is often not that he is a masterful and exceedingly prolific short-story writer. Nor is it his acerbic wit and general kvetching at life, on Twitter or in his novels. Nor, unfairly, is it the fact that he is a winner of the World Fantasy Award, in 2011, and a Kitschies Black Tentacle for the World SF Blog in 2012. No, instead it is that he was the guy who wasn’t nominated for the Clarke Awards for Osama, as per Christopher Priest’s memorable rant of a couple of years back.
Osama concerned an alternate history, which diverged from our own somewhere around the Second World War. It explored a modern-day society without a major terrorist threat, through a detective romp and a pulp writer. Winning the World Fantasy Award made Tidhar’s name stand out that much more, and the first novel of the resulting two-book deal with Hodder (Osama was published by large small-press PS Publishing).The Violent Century received rave reviews as it created a new kind of Superhero story, following the impact of Superheroism across the twentieth century’s major historical events. While one could see in the likes of Watchmen or Frank Miller's Batman flashes of a world where Superheroism is a curse, not a blessing, where it is subverted for a new aim, Tidhar took this further through its merging with true history.
A Man Lies Dreaming is at times painfully reminiscent of these previous books. It looks at an alternate history dreamt of by a concentration camp inmate, Shomer. The title echoes our introduction to Shomer, a writer of shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction, who is incarcerated in Auschwitz: “In another time and another place Shomer lies dreaming” (p. 17). The main narrative, meanwhile, concerns Wolf, a London PI with an overt hatred of Jews in a world where Germany has undergone a Fall—the loss by National Socialism to Communism in the 1934 elections. We swiftly realise that Wolf is Adolf Hitler, disgraced, moustache-less, forced to work for Jewish money, and Jewish causes.
However, this is—perhaps—a story-within-a-story, dreamt up by Shomer from his concentration camp bunk. We are witness to the horrors of Auschwitz firsthand—the shit, the death, the gas chambers—and we begin to believe that Wolf is Shomer’s shund made flesh. He is creating a story of a world that will never come to pass.
So far, so Osama. In that novel, the real world is a pulp novel, the bestselling creation of the mysterious Mike Longschott. Here, the alternate world is the creation of the shund writer. It is pure fantasy, to escape the brutality, a fantasy that Tidhar’s worlds regularly play out. Himself Jewish, Tidhar incorporates an author's note at the end of A Man Lies Dreaming explaining that, in essence, if anyone has the right to mock Hitler in this way it is Tidhar. A Man Lies Dreaming can be seen as a revenge fantasy of sorts—humiliating in the most base way the man who attempted to deny Jewish humanity. Its mockery isn’t subtle: Wolf is monstrous, stereotypical, and the violence inflicted almost slapstick at times. It is testament, therefore, to Tidhar’s creative prowess that we forget that this is fantasy, and overtly so, as we follow Wolf’s escapades. Hired first by the daughter of a rich industrialist Jew to find her sister, missing after being smuggled out of Germany, Wolf is then approached by Oswald Mosley (an old friend, running for Prime Minister, and ahead, in the 1939 British election race) to discover the source of planned attacks on him. Meanwhile, the prostitutes of Berwick Street, outside Wolf’s bedsit and office, are being murdered, and the eyes of the law are on Wolf.
As a conventional narrative, Wolf’s story is interesting, well-plotted, if far-fetched and at times slipping into the farcical. Appearances by famous Nazis abound—Hess owns an underground pub for the German émigrés; Ilse Koch and Josef Kramer revive their horrific roles at Belsen by owning a perverted sex club trading in slave girls, particularly Jews; Goebbels is working high up in the conspiracy Wolf is investigating—and were we considering simply Wolf’s story, these would feel too manufactured, too obvious, too easy a route for maximum shock value.
Wolf’s is not a conventional narrative, however. Instead, it is the apparent product of Shomer’s mind, and as a result becomes an allegory for the loss of power of the Jewish people—and the Nazi denial of their humanity—during the Holocaust. Shomer’s narrative, too, sees him meet those who were famously interned in Auschwitz. Injuring his leg digging graves—he is distracted by the hallucination of a dead inmate he bunked with, Yenkl—Shomer finds himself in the infirmary. This is paradise for the concentration camp inmate, free of work and thus free of pain. Here he witnesses a conversation between Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik over the nature of Auschwitz, with their narrative taken, almost word-for-word, from their books on their experience of Auschwitz.
The presence of these historical figures lends the novel the air of a commentary on Holocaust literature in general: like Ka-Tzetnik, Tidhar is creating his own "Planet Auschwitz." And yet, by embedding it within Shomer’s Levian meta-narrative, honest to the last about the horrors, A Man Lies Dreaming sits uneasily as a middle ground. The Holocaust is beyond understanding, and yet we must try to understand it as best we can. It forces alternate worlds as a coping mechanism, and yet all roads lead back to Shomer, to Auschwitz, to the pain and horror that the fantasy is escaping and diverting upon the figure of Hitler.
Wolf is overt in his hatred of Jews. The first line of the book echoes Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and immediately sets us up for Wolf’s fascination: “She had the face of an intelligent Jewess” (p. 1). We are repeatedly—unsubtly—slapped around the face by Wolf’s anti-Semitism. Tidhar uses direct quotes from Mein Kampf and from Gustl’s The Young Hitler I Knew to reinforce this, to predictably chilling effects. And yet we find ourselves feeling sympathetic toward Wolf’s degradation as he is forced to accept money from people he hates, as his hatred for his masochistic sexual tendencies is played out, in great detail, in front of us, as he comes to the slow realisation that, in this world, he is a Jew. That is to say, he is powerless. He is nothing, less than nothing. In his own way, Shomer is getting his revenge on Hitler by placing him within a shund tale, by making a story that is one part Adolf Hilter, PI, to one part Nazisploitation/Hitler-porn. Like Ka-Tzetnik’s House of Dolls, Shomer’s Wolf is, at least in part, a method of coping with the atrocities committed at Auschwitz by turning to pornography. The escape from the tedium of surviving into a lurid fantasy is appreciable, and serves the dual purpose of humanising Wolf through his mental anguish at committing acts which he thinks are disgusting and perverted, yet are also his kink, and also allowing fresh insight into the mind of Shomer, desperately escaping Auschwitz, weaving the rumours of bunkmates into his own personal dream.
This deconstruction of Wolf is reinforced as the book progresses. Wolf takes the assumed identity of Moshe Wolfson, a Jew, by purloining his identity papers. He is treated as such after a beating from the Jewish banker father of his client—literally so, as, in an incredibly funny and well-realised scene, despite its violence, Wolf is forcibly circumcised. This is Wolf’s final realisation, as the book come to its climax and the three plot points of Wolf’s story close: “‘I’m a Jew,’ he said, and laughed; but like Wolf himself, the sound meant nothing” (p. 248).
Wolf is obviously Hitler. But Wolf is also an expression of historical Jewish powerlessness, and revenge for it—be this Shomer’s, or Tidhar’s own. He is also something weird—a real world bleeding over into an alternate world, much like the titular Osama. Wolf, and A Man Lies Dreaming, are in-depth, literary explorations of the pulp novel, of the writer’s life (there is a fantastically memorable scene where Wolf visits a literary party, and proceeds to get rather irate about the failure of My Struggle. Alongside the exploration of Shomer-as-shund-writer, the author and the realities of his creation are constantly questioned). In the conclusion of the novel these lines between fiction and reality blur. Wolf witnesses a present-day London in the fireworks of Mosley’s inevitable election victory. As Mosley talks of a “final solution to the Jewish problem,” as alt-history merges with real history, so too does Wolf’s past merge with Hitler’s 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 amidst the squalor of old London, by London Bridge a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pierced the sky. From the city of London 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. (p. 237)
Simultaneously, Wolf’s world merges with Shomer’s. After being released from the infirmary, Shomer finds himself as part of a production line making doors, fitting handles to be exact. Reaching out, he finds himself first eating the Shabbat meal with his family, and then in Wolf’s 1939, and then in an endless corridor of door after door after door. This blurring of fiction-within-fiction is at once a striking aspect at the end of the novel, and a confusing one. Again, it feels like the hallucinogenic ending of Osama, as Joe looks over Kabul, and has a foot in both realities. Tidhar’s interest in the bleed between writing and reality shows throughout his work, in both short and long form, and occurs sometimes to the detriment of understanding. In this case, it makes some sense, though I felt that this and the endnotes that the novel comes with—neither indicated in the text, or, whilst informative, particularly necessary—were the weakest parts of what is overall an extremely strong novel. It feels to an extent as though the exploration of the liminal space between writing and reality, between Shomer’s world and Wolf’s, Joe’s and Mike Longschott’s, must end by stepping through the doorway between the two and accepting that one must be the truth. Equally, it feels like Tidhar is unwilling for it to be this simple. Confusion, bleed, call it what you will, stems from this. It is unsatisfying, but that is the point. There are no clear answers when dealing with something as emotionally fraught for so many people as the Holocaust, and Tidhar leaves his reader to supply their own.
The relationship A Man Lies Dreaming has with Osama is clear, but in many ways this is a better novel—it is more tightly structured, with a close focus on Tidhar’s own religion, as opposed to the wide-ranging remit of international terrorism. Wolf is a fantastic character, reprehensible, but somehow piteous, hilarious, oddly likeable for all his terrible traits, and the ability to make the reader sympathise with Adolf Hitler, for god’s sake, cannot be underestimated. Tidhar is a masterful writer. More so even than James Smythe and Adam Roberts, he is perhaps the UK’s most literary speculative fiction writer, and we should celebrate A Man Lies Dreaming as more a masterful work of literary fiction than of speculative fiction. But it is exactly that: masterful.
Maximillian Edwards is a Londoner who works in publishing. A former editor of the British Fantasy Society Journal, his short fiction has appeared in Holdfast Magazine and he blogs at onechaptermore.com.