Hodder, out now
In Auschwitz, a former pulp writer lies dreaming – of a world where everything has changed and the former Fuhrer is a private detective working with and for those he loathes…
It’s a word I’ve used to describe his last two novels, but Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel is one of the most powerful books I’ve read this year thanks to its combination of alternate history noir and the harsh reality of life in the concentration camps. Tidhar doesn’t just describe situations, both real and fictional; he makes you feel them, with writing that stimulates all your senses. The itchiness of the dirt which gets beneath your skin that comes from sources you don’t want to imagine; the stale stench from decayed semen (you may never eat a certain fungus again); the pain of an enforced operation – all are graphically yet concisely portrayed. There are scenes of violence and sexual degradation that are never glamourized and work all the better for their matter of fact relating.
The two elements – fantasy and history – are separate to begin with, but become increasingly closer as Shomer, the concentration camp inmate, weakens. Tidhar doles out the information about the alternate history as required but you quickly understand who “Wolf” is, and how National Socialism is no longer the prevalent creed in Germany. Students of the history of the period will probably understand the references to the different people that Wolf encounters without needing to check the handy notes at the back of the book, and Tidhar skilfully extrapolates how such people would react in their new circumstances. Those who have it within them to commit atrocities, to turn a blind eye to suffering, or to regard those they are dealing with as subhuman will find ways to do so and while it may be stretching credulity that Wolf meets so many of his former colleagues in this story, you have to always remember that this is a tale being created by a man suffering at their hands.
And Tidhar captures the monotonous existence (life is the wrong word) of those in Auschwitz – the ones who aren’t immediately scheduled for extermination, who live in the present yet escape in their minds to the past, who are haunted by all those who have gone before them. Their conversations, their farts and illnesses – the banality of humanity is present even in such extreme conditions,
That’s not to say that this book lacks wit: there’s a party scene where Wolf meets a former lover who’s in town because she’s making a film, with cameo appearances by many key figures of the age (including Saint creator Leslie Charteris). Wolf’s opinion of The Wizard of Oz may make you laugh aloud – then realise what it is you’re laughing at.
Tidhar has clearly done his research on Wolf, incorporating many events from his life prior to 1933 in flashback, and he captures what today might be termed his anger management issues. The journey on which he takes Wolf is often surprising but he keeps the former dictator true to himself, and while the identity of the killer Wolf is chasing is not hard to deduce, the core of that part of the story isn’t who he’s after, but how those around him react to Wolf trying to find out.
Verdict: A Man Lies Dreaming once again combines Tidhar’s love of alternate realities with insights into what it means to be human. It will haunt your dreams and is his best novel yet. Highly recommended. 9/10