DECEMBER 7, 2014
IN THE EARLY months of 1944, half a year before the Russians liberate Auschwitz, one of the protagonists of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming overhears a conversation between two of his fellow inmates. Prisoner 174517, who survived in real life to become an anguish of the Primo Levi who had been a chemist before the War, is arguing with Prisoner 135633, who later called himself Ka-Tzetnik 135633 and who wrote House of Dolls (1955), a short novel set in one of the “Freudenabteilung” (or Joy Division) barracks where Jewish women were whored out to worthy non-Jewish inmates and Germans until they began to wear out and were butchered for their skins. What possible register of human linguistic discourse, Levi asks, could come even remotely close to conveying the nature of what was happening here? The only way to “write this rent in the world”, he concludes, would be through “a language as clear and precise as possible, a language without ornament”. But Prisoner 135633 tells Levi that he is wrong,
“For this is no longer the world you knew, the world any of us knew. That world is dead, everything is divided, Before-Auschwitz and the Now, for there is only now, even to think of a life beyond is to indulge in fantasy. But to answer your question, to write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.”
The future Ka-Tzetnik 135633 later testified at the Eichmann Trial in 1961 under his real name, Yehiel De-Nur (1909-2001); House of Dolls, because of its explicit rendering of torture as an exercise in sexual power, was treated in some quarters as pornographic. It has, however, become a high school text in Israel. As far as Tidhar’s protagonist-in-Auschwitz is concerned, Ka-Tzetnik 135633’s version of how to depict Planet Auschwitz is not only more persuasive than Levi’s but already a done thing. Tidhar calls his protagonist Shomer, which was the working name of a late nineteenth century Yiddish writer of shund, or pulp fiction; and Shomer has already begun to create — at least in his dreams, for he is the man who lies dreaming — a world he can bear to narrate, in “a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions”, though Auschwitz does not enter the tale: Shomer cannot go that far, cannot immure his dream narrative inside of any year later than 1939. He needs something like escape, something like revenge but also something like a joke. So he dreams up a vile joke butthead Hitler. With only the occasional intermission set in the gnawing vastation of the real world, Tidhar’s novel re-enacts a triumph of the untermensch, who is most intolerable to his torturers when he laughs like Trickster. A Man Lies Dreaming is a pulp novel about a Hitler.
It is best for us, all the same, as readers of fantastika, to treat Shomer’s tale as literal: which is to say a story worth the telling. In the end we are not “fooled”, we do not “believe” Shomer’s Europe, not all literals are equal; but A Man Lies Dreaming requires a sustained gift of suspended disbelief; it is a discourtesy to the nature of story — and to the extremity of Shomer’s need — to treat his tale of Hitler as a projection, a “fantasy”, as simply the sleight-of-hand of a man starving to death in Auschwitz. So we begin. The magic of being in a story bathes us in some primal fluid. We are in an alternate-world version of London, in 1939. Seven years earlier, the Communists had ousted the Nazis from power, and the deposed Adolf Hitler — not named until a few pages from the end, when a serial killer addresses him by his name — has gone to ground in an England which has given him sanctuary. He therefore scorns the weakness of the English, exudating vileness like a stomped roach. He has become a private investigator who calls himself Wolf, a name the historical Hitler used in the 1920s; and he makes a greasy rotten show of playing the game. He spits on the grave of his semblance. Even on our first impression, he is like some EC Comics version of Philip Marlowe. He is a Living Dead. And even though the magic of reader identification with any bearer of story will carry us a certain distance, we can abide only so far his spittle-spraying sadism, his NPD gloating, his sexual manipulation of the weak, his misogyny.
So. He is not a fun guy, there is no joke he is capable of getting, certainly not the fact that Shomer has drawn him as a self-consuming mockery of Philip Marlowe, for he is entirely bereft of chivalry. The story begins. We are in the grips of his journal (presumably to move the tale as fast as possible, Tidhar alternates between Wolf’s journal and an omniscient but not-telling third person narrative voice). He is in his Marlowe office. A visibly rich young woman asks him to trace her sister, who has gone missing en route to dubious refuge in England. She is Jewish, but he needs the money. England under the influence of Oswald Mosley has become no place for a Jew to hide in, but so what: it would serve the Jewess right if he delivered her into the hands of what the English now think just treatment. So he takes the job. There is no real need to follow the entrapments and double-crosses and beatings (administered and submitted to) that follow, as he slithers deeper and deeper into the anti-Semitic dystopia England is becoming — Tidhar’s portrait of a collaborationist England is more savage than Jo Walton’s in her Small Change sequence. As he demonstrated in Osama (2011) and The Violent Century (2013) — two precursor works where pulp alterities mock and transfigure the recent past and specious present of our world — Tidhar knows very precisely how to stretch genre conventions just to the point where they become transparent to the Hades within but no further. A story so stretched that you can see the world to come within that story is a Serpent’s Egg. Hitler’s jagged Escher-like transformation into a Jew Hitler— for his plunges into detective-like snooping have yoked him deeper and deeper into a noir terminus, and his only escape is to become something like a doppelganger — comes close to dissolving the meniscus of story, but does not, though the rhythms of his prose take on, at points, some of the loathsome duplicities that mark the nightmarish ventriloquism of Michael Moorcock’s deliriously thrawn miming of the utterly damned Colonel Pyat (in Byzantium Endures and sequels, 1981-2005). In any case, Shomer cannot let him go. It is the heart of the obscenity in which the human being Shomer is immured that his doofus Hitler is too much fun to leave.
Which is not to say that Shomer is not due to be murdered. Which is not to say, on the other hand, that Tidhar is entirely ready to leave him in this world. Given the fact he is only telling a story, how could he have the heart to? In the closing pages of A Man Lies Dreaming, the lucid and continuous dream of Wolf Marlowe is jostlingly intermitted by Shomer’s sudden shifts amongst various worlds, where he makes japing appearances only to vanish again, rather like Gully Foyle jaunting through the solar system at the end of Alfred Bester’s The Stars my Destination (1957). If Hitler can escape to Palestine, Shomer should be able to bask his sweat and anguish away in salt surf. Indeed at times the deft looseness of fit between implied author and tale told almost allows us almost to think that Tidhar is telling us sure, sure. That the ending to A Man Lies Dreaming is a shrug into freedom, like Gully’s. But that is a shimmy of telling. We do know what this book is actually saying. That to wake up in Auschwitz is to wake up inside the Serpent’s Egg. That to wake up in this world is no escape.
That to wake up in this world is to see the future.