Unnerving WWII Noir In 'A Man Lies Dreaming'
Books that imagine a different version of the World War II era are as old as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle and as new as Philip Roth's 2005 novel The Plot Against America. But few of these alternate histories are as bold and unnerving as Lavie Tidhar's A Man Lies Dreaming. First published in the UK in 2014, the novel is now out in the U.S., and it couldn't appear at a more unnerving time: As if mirroring our current election cycle, it depicts a right-wing politician successfully stoking the fires of xenophobia and bigotry. But in the case of Dreaming, the setting is London in 1939 — in a world where the Nazis never rose to power in Germany, and the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley is leading the race to become the new Prime Minister.
Oswald, however, is not the main character in Dreaming. Tidhar's choice is far more audacious: The book centers around Wolf, a down-and-out private eye in London who escaped Germany in 1933 when the communists — not the National Socialists — took over. It becomes clear very early on that Wolf is, in fact, Adolf Hitler.
Tidhar has handled reviled, real-life figures in his fiction before, most notably in 2011's Osama, and at first Dreaming feels like a reprise. Tidhar has other plans, though. The plot of Dreaming unfolds like a hardboiled detective yarn, with Wolf being hired by a mysterious — and Jewish — femme fatale to find her missing sister. At the same time, he takes on a second case for Oswald, whom he both admires and resents for capitalizing on the same anti-Semitic, nationalistic ideas that Wolf himself once spread. Wolf, at heart, is still the Hitler of our world, with the same virulent beliefs and lust for power: "Give me a large enough lever and I would move the very world," he snarls in frustration, a would-be despot who was never given the chance to twist the world into his own image.
If that kind of alt-history speculation comprised the entirety of Dreaming, it'd be an intriguing read. But it's only the tip of Tidhar's iceberg. In a story that intersects Wolf's, a Jew named Shomer — hailing from our version of reality — is a prisoner at Auschwitz. He's also a writer of pulp detective stories. The interplay between the two storylines grows profound as they progress. Wolf's investigations take bizarre, grotesque, blackly comedic turns while Shomer's horrific existence grows symbolic — and then something magically more than symbolic — when the SS assigns him the task of making doors.
'Dreaming' is a book of big ideas, from the pathological origins of racist ideology to the way humanizing and dehumanizing those we love or loathe are flip sides of the same coin.
Like any good alt-history, Dreaming is exhaustively researched. A multitude of historical figures pop up in its pages, including many literary ones — among them A. A. Milne, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ian Fleming, and Evelyn Waugh. Some feel gratuitous and even distracting; others, like G. K. Chesterton and his notions of law and anarchy from The Man Who Was Thursday, feed into the thematic fabric that Tidhar weaves. Dreaming is a book of big ideas, from the pathological origins of racist ideology to the way humanizing and dehumanizing those we love or loathe are flip sides of the same coin.
Functionally, Hitler is the hero of Dreaming. Tidhar evokes a flesh-crawling sympathy for the most hated man in modern history while degrading him physically, emotionally, and sexually. He also paints a bloodcurdling picture of Auschwitz, where "men die like smoke" and "women die like air." Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur — author of the infamously lurid House of Dolls — appears briefly as a character in the book, observing that "this is an alien planet [...]. This is Planet Auschwitz." A few pages earlier, Wolf is absurdly, hilariously envisioning how he might have brutally subjugated Oz if he'd been its dictator, all while grudgingly admitting to himself how much he loves "Over the Rainbow."
Tidhar tightropes between fantasy, farce, and historical fiction, all while grounding things in brisk, gritty noir. Parallels to our current state of affairs abound, but if anything, they're simply symptoms of how the past can recycle itself in frightening new ways — a process that Dreaming compellingly picks apart and rewires. History isn't written by the winners or the losers, Tidhar illustrates, but by those who know how to shroud it and spin it the most entertainingly. Which only makes Dreaming all the more chilling.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.
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