Herr Wolf is an immigrant in 1939 London, one of many Germans driven out from the Fatherland after the fall of fascism in the 1933 German elections. Wolf was once the leader of German fascism but, with his own country caught in the vice of a communist revolution, Wolf, as he now calls himself, makes ends meet as a private detective, living in London’s underworld, amongst its gangsters, thugs and prostitutes. Wolf would never choose to work for Jews unless desperate but desperate he is when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office. Her sister Judith is missing, one of many immigrants smuggled out of Germany and now lost. Isabella knows exactly which buttons to press. Wolf is soon entangled and descends even deeper into the rot in London’s poorest streets and its racket clubs, so many of which are run by the men who once, years before, clicked their heels at Wolf.
But none of this is real. Shomer lies dreaming in the hell that the Nazis have created. He is in Auschwitz, his family slashed in two, his wife and children gassed, his own survival unlikely. Before the Holocaust, Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. Now he survives one day at a time by dreaming an alternate history, one in which Hitler never rose to power but instead has to hide himself in a foreign city under a different name, working for the very people he despises, pitied and repudiated by Britain’s own rising fascist faction, and reduced to something less than human by the the lust and hatred that has twisted his soul.
In A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar has created an extraordinary vision of a shifted, dark and rotted world. At its heart Shomer lies dreaming and throughout we are given brief and painfully graphic glimpses into his night and day. In the centre of his dream is Wolf and for most of the novel we watch Wolf move through his London, chasing the missing Judith while also working on his other mission to keep Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist with dreams of becoming Prime Minister, safe from assassination. While at times we see Wolf through the omnipresent eyes of our narrator, there are many other times when we descend into Wolf’s mind though his journal entries. This is a nasty place to be and no attempt is made to win over the reader. Instead, the clever shifting narration keeps us at a safe distance as we sit and observe Wolf.
A Man Lies Dreaming is a most unusual book – our leading character is despicable and we are constantly reminded of this, by the condition of Shomer and by Wolf’s own condition. Wolf is a man immersed in sin and the evil he has created is his own reward as Shomer struggles to hold on to his own life and sanity. We watch Wolf unwind and the violence he suffers has the satisfaction of fate about it. A Man Lies Dreaming is about a man who cannot be saved; our empathy and feeling is reserved entirely for Shomer.
The other characters in the novel all have a purpose designed by the dreamer. Their function is to define, torment and disintegrate Wolf. The characters from Wolf’s past are there to remind him of what he’s lost while Mosley and the Mitford sisters taunt him with what could have been. Isabella Rubinstein and her father exert a justice that is painfully precise and justified. Other characters live in in the memories that Wolf recalls in his diary, so many of them now destroyed. Familiar names are thrown at us throughout and there is no little satisfaction in fitting them back into history as it actually happened. The London that it depicts is also well done. Both familiar and different, this is a London where fascism is on the rise but where the downtrodden, the beaten and the victimised are beginning to fight back.
A Man Lies Dreaming might be dark and powerful and at times painfully graphic (sex and violence – especially the sex) but I found the novel fascinating and extremely difficult to put down, reading it in a couple of sittings. It’s hugely clever, aimed at (and hitting) both the reader’s heart and mind, witty and completely absorbing. Lavie Tidhar is a writer with extraordinary flair and wit – as I already knew from his previous novel The Violent Century – but in A Man Lies Dreaming Tidhar takes extra steps and the result is an incredibly brave and imaginative novel, evoking in a such an unusual and effective way the trauma of the Holocaust, and without doubt it will feature in my top ten books of 2014. And what a fantastic cover.
The Violent Century