2 November 2014

Review: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming
Lavie Tidhar
Hodder & Stoughton, 23 October 2014
Hardback, 288 pages

Source: Purchased from my local independent bookshop

In this book, as with his earlier Osama, Tidhar plays games with an alternate version of a real monster. This brilliant, haunting book raises many questions about guilt, evil and redemption but gives few answers, instead, it leaves the reader to ponder.

In another time and place, it is November 1939. Down-at-heel German émigré Wolf is a Chandleresque private eye living in squalid Soho among prostitutes and posturing Blackshirts. In this reality, The Nazis never came to power in Germany, but fled when the Communists took over. Wolf once was a Somebody, now he is a nobody, eking out a living as his old comrades prosper.

And, as befits a Chandleresque fantasy, one day, a dame walks in to Wolf's shabby office, a dame with a problem.

We soon learn that Wolf, too, has a problem - his client is Jewish, but he is an anti-semite, indeed, an ex-leader among anti-semites. So slternating between his diary entries and third person narration, we see him struggle with this case, a case he is forced to take on to stay alive in that very cold winter, but a case with which he becomes strangely absorbed.

The questions, of course, come straight away. Wolf, in the manner of PIs in Chandlerseque novels, is warned off, attacked, arrested, released and beaten again. He - the real Wolf, the man who rose to power - was an evil monster, so this must be deserved, surely? Yet the Wolf of the story, while vile, isn't that monster, is he? He took the first steps to monsterdom but never made it to the summit. Instead, here, in a swipe I think at current times, we see other monsters - Mosley and his followers - speaking of a country being "swamped" by foreigners, while Wolf sees the nationalist rhetoric turned against him and his Germans. We see American agents, proponents of "regime change". We see a murderer, watching from the shadows and killing those same prostitutes whom Wolf despises, but never harms.

If you're the sort of reader who has to have "sympathetic" characters, don't even start this, you simply won't get it. Nobody in London, 1939 - except perhaps one or two minor characters - is "sympathetic". They live in a tainted world, where the night has eyes, and all choices are bad ones.

Yet there are sympathetic characters in the book. Interleaved with Wolf's story are fragments of lives in the camps, where Shomer, a writer of Yiddish pulp tales, labours for his tormentors. Is Shomer dreaming Wolf? Yes, to a degree, though of course the detail of Wolf's life, the politics of 1939 England, the life Wolf lives is beyond what a Shomer would know. is Wolf, perhaps, dreaming Shomer, as he - Wolf - haunts a 1939 that seems to foretell 2014, with ghostly outlines of modern London and ghastly, hate filled rhetoric from a vile and bigoted politics.

How to write about the Holocaust? Tidhar asks this question explicitly and returns to it in his endnotes (which meticulously document what's true both in the camp narrative and in Wolf's life). Like this, is his answer. Compellingly, vividly, keeping those big questions of guilt, memory, good and evil in clear sight but never supplying glib answers.

It's an enthralling book, filled with violence, depravity, lots of graphic sex, humour (Wolf runs into his old friend Leni Riefenstahl, who's starring in a film about a little bar in a war-torn North Africa: "We'll always have Nuremburg" she sighs) but above all with intelligence and an unflinching view of history - both what it was and what it might be.

By far and away the best book I've read this year, confirming Tidhar, in my view, as a towering writer not just (just?) of fantasy but of literature.

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