A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar
Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.
I was fascinated by the premise of this novel as soon as I first heard about it. An alternate history, told as a story within another story. I was right to be intrigued. A Man Lies Dreaming is a provocative, mesmerising experience. I finished the book earlier this week and I’m still pondering it now.
The scenes featuring Shomer in Auschwitz are heart breaking. His entire life has been utterly destroyed. His family and friends are gone, and now he only exists in his own personal hell. It feels almost like events occur in a bubble, there is no past or present for Shomer, the camp is in a state of constant now. The only time when he is not controlled is when he is unconscious. Shomer’s mind uses these precious moments to take the only revenge a writer can, he eviscerates his enemy in fiction.
Wolf shares much in common with other literary gumshoes. He exists on the very periphery of London society. Downbeat and broken, this once a powerful man, a leader, finds himself surrounded by the dregs of society. In Shomer’s dreams of alternate London, Wolf is forced to suffer the ultimate degradation, to work for those who were once his enemies. Instead of completing his rise to power and plunging the world into a war, Wolf failed and is forced to flee his homeland. I like the idea that flipping the outcome of a single event completely rewrites a large chunk of twentieth century history. When writing Wolf’s story, Tidhar has used names and faces that you’ll recognise but their histories have subtly altered. It is curious to discover just how far reaching these changes are but also how other events have risen up to take their place. Wolf is a curious sight, driven by a sense of law and order. No matter where his case takes him he will see it through to the bitter end, irrespective of the cost. However, underneath this wafer thin veneer of civility lurks the power hungry despot who was willing to destroy complete races in order to further his own agenda.
Be warned, the writing in A Man Lies Dreaming pulls no punches. This is an exceptionally adult tale. There are graphic, violent and sexual moments throughout. In both London and Auschwitz, there are some horrible characters. Wolf’s former compatriots include a host of psychopaths, sadists and masochists. There will be scenes that I am sure many will consider harrowing, but it is well worth persevering. This is compelling fiction I had to keep reading. At times I may have wanted to, but I certainly couldn’t look away.
Wolf revels in his old glories, in what he could/should have been, while in the camp Shomer tries to do anything to blot out the carnival of ever present horrors. The split narrative is used very effectively. There are even moments where scenes weave from one strand to another and then back again. Prior to reading, I was concerned that this might be to quite complicated or problematic to follow. I needn’t have worried; Tidhar pulls this off with skilful aplomb. The author treats the source material with a delicate, reverential touch. He has used a horrific chapter in history and crafted a story that explores the best and worst aspects of humanity. This novel truly is exceptional.
A Man Lies Dreaming is published by Hodder and is available now. Highly recommended.