London, 1939. A low-rent private eye called Wolf is barely eking out a living on the dirty streets of a city swarming with refugees, mostly “Austrians and Germans displaced by the Fall, rejected by the nations of Europe until they had made their way, in one secret form or another, across the Channel into England…without papers, without hope.” Wolf himself is a refugee, a broken shadow of the man he used to be, with few dreams and aspirations and barely enough work or money to survive the coming winter. When a wealthy Jewish heiress walks into his office and hires him to find her sister, Wolf swallows his hatred for the Jewish people and takes on a job that leads him deep into London’s seedy underground. It’s a perfect noir set up that twists suddenly when you realise that Wolf is a translation of Adolf.
Lavie Tidhar’s new novel, A Man Lies Dreaming, is an alternate history of Europe in the 1930s: a Europe that did not see WW2 or the rise of Nazi Germany or the Holocaust. In this story, Hitler has not been able to rise to complete power and like many others has fled what is now an increasingly communist Germany. But A Man Lies Dreaming is still very much a Holocaust novel, though unlike any we’ve seen before. Though we begin with Wolf, it’s soon evident that “In another time and place Shomer lies dreaming” as he creates Wolf’s story in his mind. Shomer was a pulp fiction writer before the war, of “Yiddish shund, that is of cheap literature or, not to put to fine a point on it, of trash,” but is being held in Auschwitz, where there is “only the 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,” recreating the world he faces into one he can control.
When Tidhar writes of the Holocaust it is with brutal accuracy and a deep sensitivity. Though we spend less time in Auschwitz than we do in Shomer’s imagined London, we are just as affected by Shomer’s reality as we would be had the entire novel been set during WW2. When “a great barren sky spreads over Shomer”s head” and he “sees the chimneys belching soot, back soot and ash, flakes of black snow falling.” it’s poetic and terrible.
Wolf”s story is classic hard-boiled fiction in many ways—his search for the young Jewish woman who has vanished after being smuggled out of Germany leads him back to his old comrades, some of whom are involved in horrible, illegal activities, echoing some of what we know of WW2 history. There is also a killer on the loose in London, a man who murder prostitutes and carves swastika’s into the chests of his victims, leading the police to accuse Wolf of the crimes. Wolf has to stay out of jail and continue the hunt for the young woman while around him the political landscape of the UK changes as the country leans towards a fascist leader.
He’s a strange character, this Wolf—we know who he is meant to be, we know of the atrocities Hitler caused and yet somehow it is easier to pity this abject man rather than simply hate him as an avatar of Hitler. Wolf is a man fallen from grace, fallen from power into the gutter of a city where he does not belong, where he can not assimilate or even truly hide, where he ends up becoming the very thing he despises, depending on those he hates for money, pleasure, for any sense of identity. Of course, he is still a terrible person, an extreme anti-semite imagining a horrific world where “all homosexuals, along with communists and Jews, would be sent to specially-built camps for their kind.” But on occasion we see a less vile aspect of him—he beats up a man who is trafficking Jewish women for sex and frees the prisoners even as he curses them; he attempts to save the life of a familiar prostitute who has been attacked, calling out for help even though he should not risk being associated with the crime, even though he loathes prostitutes.
Many will find elements of this story deeply disturbing, not the least of which is a possible sympathy to Wolf. Tidhar never holds back on sex and violence, even playing out every rumour about Hitler’s sex life that may ever have been whispered. From brutal back-alley murders to BDSM to golden showers to horrific prison brothels resembling “Joy Divisions” of the concentration camps—it’s all here in unadulterated, visceral lurid technicolour. As if to explain what he’s doing with A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar creates a conversation between Ka-Tzetnik and Primo Levi (both actual historical figures, survivors of, and well known writers of Holocaust-related literature), in which Ka-Tzetnik explains why there is a need to create lurid, loud narratives about their suffering. “To write of this Holocaust,” he says, “is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page, not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of the shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy.”
If WW2 helped create any sort of pulp fiction, it was that of the dime-novel style Israeli “stalag fiction” of the 50s and 60s, the infamous 1955 The House Of Dolls by Auschwitz survivor Ka-tzetnik and the Nazi Exploitation films of the 1970s. At the most basic level, films like 1974’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS were hardcore pornography, but there were also higher-end productions like Italian director Lilliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter, which examined the dynamics of power in a co-dependant sadomasochistic relationship between an ex-SS officer and a female survivor of a concentration camp when they meet again years after WW2. Tidhar channels each of these narratives into A Man Lies Dreaming, creating a sort of Holocaust noir or pulp that is at once as riveting as it is disturbing.
A Man Lies Dreaming also echoes noir classics very clearly, be it the search for the younger sister from Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, or the opening lines of The Big Sleep, with Tidhar acknowledging each instance in the book’s end notes. The very landscape of London is treated in a way only a noir writer would treat it—the streets are mean, the “night [is] full of eyes, watching,” there is a range of catcalling prostitutes on the corner, corrupt politicians, violent cops and at least one seedy downtrodden pub harbouring a filthy secret basement. To top it all of course is Tidhar’s voice itself—at times humorous, at times grim but never frivolous and always taught and controlled.
As with his previous novels, Tidhar knows how to say a great deal in very little. There is eloquence and gravitas in the sparselness and brevity of noir fiction when it is good, and Tidhar’s is quite incredible. He examines the Holocaust in the light of what he knows—imagined alternative narratives of survival, fictions based on possibilities and potential. Shomer may claim “Stories, stories, he is sick to death of stories!,” but Tidhar also knows “they are all he has.”
A Man Lies Dreaming is available now from Hodder & Stoughton.