Reading the premise of Lavie Tidhar’s 2014 A Man Lies Dreaming, several questions immediately popped into mind. Didn’t Tidhar already play literary games with a pulp private eye in Osama? Is he just hoping to cash in again on the same idea? Moreover, didn’t Norman Spinrad already write an alternate history wherein Hitler was a pulp writer in The Iron Dream? And didn’t Brian Aldiss already have a discussion with Hitler in London in “Swastika!”? Is Tidhar’s novel really going to be such an original work?
I’ve since finished the novel, and my answers to those questions are… ambiguous. Indeed both Spinrad and Tidhar’s novels are alternate histories wherein Hitler never had the chance to form the Nazi party or take power in Germany, and instead became involved in pulp fiction. But where Hitler was the writer of pulp fiction in The Iron Dream, he is a character in pulp fiction in A Man Lies Dreaming. Wish fulfillment, in other words, is in the hands of the fictional author in Spinrad’s novel, and in the hands of the real author in Tidhar’s. Headed in different directions, Spinrad achieves historical and social commentary while Tidhar gets revenge on one of the most infamous historical figures known (yes, in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds).
A narrative told in two perspectives, the first-person portion of A Man Lies Dreaming is purported to be the journals of Herr Wolf (i.e. Hitler), a private eye in London’s Soho district. Opening on the most stereotypical P.I. scenes possible, a woman walks into Wolf’s office needing help with a problem she doesn’t want the police involved in: the finding of her sister, also a Jew, missing for more than a week. In perhaps the least logically coherent moment of the novel, Wolf accepts her commission despite his loathing for Jews. (One gets the impression the real Hitler was so idealistic that to accept money from Jews for services rendered would be anathema no matter how dire his circumstances. But I digress.)
The second perspective of the narrative is third-person, and alternates with the first-person portion. In these sections, an unnamed narrator tells of Wolf’s search for the missing sister as well as describes the life of one Shomer, a laborer at a Nazi concentration camp. Wolf’s search taking him through the vile parts of London where he sees and experiences unspeakable violence and tragedy, it forms a parallel to the plight of Shomer, who likewise is party to some of the worst atrocities visited upon humanity. The conclusions of Wolf and Shomer’s stories, however, are anything but parallel.
Thus where Spinrad’s The Iron Dream spins off on Hitler’s wildest fantasies, Tidhar cuts the dictator off at the knees, throwing him into a seedier pulp story where his deepest desires are stunted by the circumstances of his surroundings. Victim rather than anti-hero, Tidhar seems to revel in describing the violence imposed upon the belittled Fuhrer (as much as the violence inflicted on Shomer, interestingly). Focusing on Hitler’s fears and hates, the approach is character-based, and thus narrow in comparison to Spinrad’s usage of race purity, eugenics, militarism, fascism, and other key aspects of the Fuhrer’s ideology. Tidhar places the psyche behind Hitler’s hatred of the Jews front and center, which leads to:
There are many ways to create tension in a narrative, and for more than sixty years one common way is to portray the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Innumerable books and films launched from this atrocity, A Man Lies Dreaming joins the list. Sixty-plus years later, one hopes that presentation and analysis of the attempt at genocide would go beyond black and white Jew=good, Nazi=bad. In A Man Lies Dreaming, you’d be hard pressed to tell. The overlay of detective noir more preserving this simplicity than complexifying it, the presentation may even raise the question: has Tidhar cheapened the holocaust by rendering it in pulp form? The answer seems ‘no.’ But at the same time, I don’t think anything was done to advance holocaust discussion save give the reader a little alternate history satisfaction of seeing Hitler suffer possibly his most feared fate.
This review has thus far been critical of the novel, which is not 100% correct. Given the choice of this or real pulp, it’s certain the layers of A Man Lies Dreaming make for more stimulating reading. Moreover, Tidhar has only improved his writing technique since Osama; Dreaming indicates good control of the pulp form, and the ability to mold it to his use despite the fact he's repeating the P.I. mode. And lastly, it’s impossible to question the Jewish obsession with the holocaust and subsequent desire for revenge. Given said sixty years of social and media presence, it obviously haunts the culture, a haunting which naturally finds expression in fiction. For my money, however, The Iron Dream is a more sophisticated, universal novel. By extending the scope of Hitler’s ideology beyond extermination of the Jews to its full anti-human program, Spinrad supersedes simple vendetta. Tidhar obviously did his research into the biography of Hitler, and his rendering of the Fuhrer is at times engaging, but the ultimate result of his effort lacks the depth of Spinrad’s commentary. But read for yourself.