No one can accuse Lavie Tidhar of being risk-averse. At a time when Martin Amis is having trouble getting his concentration-camp novel The Zone of Interest published in Europe, Tidhar’s latest variation on 20th-century history takes us not only into the camps themselves, but also into an alternate 1939 in which Adolf Hitler, having lost the 1933 German election to the Communists, is scraping by as a down-at-the-heels private eye in London. But the dreamer of Tidhar’s title isn’t Hitler; it’s Shomer, a once-popular writer of Yiddish pulp fiction who finds himself a prisoner in Auschwitz. Tidhar has both a fondness for and a surprising trove of trivia about obscure pulp writers, and the real Shomer, he explains to us in an Afterword, actually died peacefully in 1905, and had been attacked in print by various Jewish intellectuals, including Sholom Aleichem. By making Shomer into the (arguably) central point-of-view and title character, Tidhar reveals – as he did earlier in Osama and to some extent in The Violent Century – that he’s really less interested in the mechanistic ‘‘what-ifs’’ of conventional alternate history than he is in the interpenetration of real and invented histories, or perhaps more grandiosely in the interpenetration of art and life – even the often-demeaned art of sensational fiction or (as in the case of The Violent Century) comic books. This is what makes him such an interesting writer, and what makes A Man Lies Dreaming quite a bit more complex than it at first appears.
Not that Tidhar doesn’t work out his alternate 1939 with meticulous and sometimes gleeful detail. His 1939 not only traces Hitler’s seedy fate (Hitler calls himself ‘‘Wolf’’ here), but follows through on a wealth of other historical figures, from other former Nazis like Rudolf Hess and Klaus Barbie to victims like Primo Levi and the Auschwitz survivor who wrote under the name Ka-Tzetnik, the British fascist Oswald Mosley (who is about to win the election for Prime Minister), the German Communist leader Ernst Thalmann (who becomes Chancellor after his victorious election), and literary and artistic figures including Leni Riefenstahl and the Mitford sisters (one of whom was notoriously a Nazi sympathizer). As if to drive home the point that this 1939 is not so radically different from our own history, there are even allusions to Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, the publisher Stanley Unwin, and, perhaps significantly, the mystery writer Leslie Charteris. He even presents a version of the film Casablanca re-imagined as a kind of post-Nazi sequel to The Great Gatsby (‘‘We’ll always have Nuremberg’’).
So the novel is not without a fair amount of humor, and that might well be the boldest risk Tidhar is taking here (though it’s worth remembering that the most effective anti-Hitler film of that era was Chaplin’s The Great Dictator). He also offers, in some detail, accounts of Hitler’s rather queasy sexual preferences and a fair amount of bloody violence as the shamus Hitler gets in over his head while trying to investigate what happened to a Jewish woman who disappeared en route from Germany to England, but it’s all cast in the deliberately pulpish voice of the kind of writer Shomer apparently was (‘‘One dead copper, one dead whore. I was getting too old’’). This is the one area where the tone of the novel gets shaky, however; the hardboiled style of the era Tidhar apes was notable for its shrewd indirection involving sex and violence, and at times Tidhar’s prose leaps a decade or so forward from the era of Dashiell Hammett to that of Mickey Spillane.
But the same question that haunted the excellent Osama comes up here as well: can you effectively pulpify a figure associated with real-world terror without risking trivializing the nature of that terror? There is no shortage of SF and fantasy dealing with Hitler and the Holocaust – ‘‘Hitler Wins’’ gets its own entry in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gregory Benford & Martin Greenberg did a whole anthology of such stories, and a few Holocaust novels have gotten away with dark humor (like Leslie Epstein’s The King of the Jews). But there are far fewer works which present Hitler as such an utter failure – he isn’t even a very good private eye – and the suggestion that finally emerges from A Man Lies Dreaming is that, even with Hitler reduced to a pulp antihero, if only in the dreams of an Auschwitz victim, anti-Semitism would have found a lot of other places to land. What really haunts the novel is not the ghost of Hitler, but that dreaming figure, borrowed more closely from our own history than from Tidhar’s fake one, and the disarming shadow of an anti-Semitic fascist regime emerging in England itself in 1939.