Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming is a Chinese puzzle box created by a master craftsman. It’s made from the highest quality materials, fitted together seamlessly and polished with great care and attention. Opening the box reveals the unexpected and leaves the reader with an exultant sense of wonder as they study the magic of its construction. Yes. I liked this book.
Tidhar’s novels somehow ought not to work – Osama sets up Osama bin Laden as a fictional vigilante and The Violent Century reinvents WWII with superheroes. Both are exceptional pieces of writing. Challenging, entertaining and thought-provoking. A Man Lies Dreaming continues the trend. It features a novel within a novel; Shomer, a prisoner of war, escapes the brutality of his life in Auschwitz by imagining a story. Before the war Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. His new story, a tale that exists only in his head, makes Adolf Hitler an exile in London, in 1939, having been ousted from his country by the communists. Europe is in turmoil, standing on the brink of war. ‘Wolf’ is an almost forgotten footnote of history; a gumshoe, a dick, a detective for hire on the streets of London.
The novel is a wonderful blend of styles, filled with reference and homage. There are obvious comparisons with Chandler and Hammet, but Tidhar borrows from Holocaust literature and modern popular culture too. This is speculative fiction, written from a perspective of a writer looking forward from the past. Tidhar expertly foreshadows trends and attitudes that are current today. Most notably, in his depiction of Oswald Mosley as a viable candidate for prime minister. In a world without a fascist Germany, British blackshirts have a chance to rise to the top. This feels cleverly plausible; Britain is, I think, a largely tolerant nation, but somehow you get the feeling that whilst we’d all deny it, it might not take much to push us over into fascism (probably starting with forming an orderly queue). Tidhar cleverly and overtly borrows from UKIP party rhetoric to make his point. Anybody who is thinking of voting for them should probably read this book, though the point the author is making is probably far too subtle.
There are some beautiful speculations on the world of literature and film, which are intriguing and entertaining in equal measure. There is a great vein of humour running through the book including a famous film being reimagined to involve F Scott Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. The multitude of these small but joyous moments give the book wonderful depth and texture. All this is underpinned by strong research and a passion for the subject matter. There are several pages of end-notes that peel back the layers of fact and fiction, revealing the seamless construction of the novel.
Whilst it has lighter moments, the heart of the book is deeply sad. Some books use the horror of holocaust like a sledgehammer to convey the sense of tragedy, without really making any real attempt to articulate the suffering, misery and cruelty inside the camps. Here the horror is dealt with gently, very much on an individual scale. The ease of which humans can become beasts is depicted in subtle shades and the novel is all the more powerful for it.
A Man Lies Dreaming had me reading late into the night, which very few novels do these days. My two-year old, five o’clock alarm call, usually puts paid to that, but I could not put this book down. I had that sense that comes with the very best of novels; hurtling towards the end desperate to finish, whilst all the time hoping the story never runs out. It many ways it doesn’t. The novel’s ending is an open one. We know what happens, and yet we don’t, for who really knows what goes on inside a man as he lays dreaming? This is a wonderful novel that I would recommend to everybody (though possibly not if you’re squeamish or dislike graphic sex scenes). It’s beautifully crafted, but there is no trick to revealing the magic inside, just lift the pages and start turning.
Many Thanks to Anne at Hodder & Stoughton for sending me a copy of this wonderful book.