Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pulping the Nazis: A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, a well-travelled Israeli currently residing in London, concerns the warp and woof of what was, what might have been and, to some degree, what still is. In Tidhar's book, it's 1939 and a writer of pulp fiction, Shomer, incarcerated in Auschwitz, imagines a book about Wolf, a once formidable German dictator, who has escaped from his native land following a communist take-over, and is now in London working as a private-eye. Not that Wolf is the only ex-Nazi in London. Pretty much all of the big guns have decamped in the capital where anti-semite fascist Oswald Mosley is about to become prime minister.

Still a megalomaniac, though no longer a leader of men, Wolf has hit rock bottom, just another fallen schlemiel, traipsing London's mean streets, humiliated by one and all (including a circumcision scene that's not easy to forget). With his reputation has preceeding him, he's hired by a young, beautiful, wealthy and sex-obsessed Jewish woman to locate her sister, as well as by Mosley who wants to know who might be after him.  Throw in the time-honoured cliche of murdered prostitutes and you get a parallel universe, or xenophobic dreamscape of a London that is just about imaginable, depending, of course, on who is doing the imagining- in this case Shomer and reader alike. In Tidhar’s novel everyone is compromised- whether Nazi or Jew. Of course, the police think it's Wolf who has committed those murders. And as yesterday's news, the poor guy can't even make any money from his autobiography Mein Kampf. Only Leni Riefenstahl seems to have escaped unscathed, to Hollywood, where acting opposite Humphrey Bogart, she's starring in a film called Tangier, which is Casablanca, written, of course, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whom Wolf claims to admire. In any case, a nightmare landscape that becomes, for Wolf, all too real.

Uncategorisable- think PK Dick crossed with Jim Thompson's King Blood-  what makes this novel so subversive isn't the warped alternative universe Tidhar establishes, but that he's out to muddy the waters when it comes to the perceived Manicheistic wisdom regarding the history of that era.  Merging fact, fiction and fantasy, Tidhar also delivers an interesting take on the state of Israel, the holocaust industry and the power to imagine what the unimaginable. Here Jewish guilt takes on a new meaning, while the characters who inhabit the novel-  whether Hitler (trans. Noble Wolf), Mosley, Diana and Unity Mitford, Goering, Barbie, Hess, etc.- are only slightly off-centre, imagined by someone who, in turn, is being imagined. Like the Watcher in the novel, who tracks Wolf, as he himself is watched, imagined, written, etc..

So subversive and darkly humorous is this novel that I couldn't help but wonder about the author's safety in certain quarters. But, then, this is the same guy who wrote an earlier novel entitled Osama. Clearly, this is someone who deserves a certain amount of respect. As for Hitler...well, there are all too many Hitlers around these days. Not quite  the "banality of evil" that Hannah Arendt spoke of, but more like its distant, drug-addled and boisterous cousin. But, then, maybe, within time every dictator, no matter how degenerate and  horrible, becomes just another object of disgust and ridicule. 

Interesting that a pulp fiction writer named Shomer actually did exist, and, as Tidhar notes, was roundly criticised by none other than Sholem Aleichem for indulging in such penny-ante fantasies. Tidhar also quotes from a concentration camp pulpist Ka-Tzetnik, who, in The Code, wrote, "Auschwitz was not created by the devil, but by men, like you, or me." No wonder, in Tidhar's book, everyone, whether as instigators or out of retribution, is capable of anything. Citing Ka-Tzetnik made me want  to track down the latter's House of Dolls, about the camp's notorious Joy Division, and look into the holocaust porn and Naziploitation pulp that, according to Tidhar, has been so popular in Israel. In the end, reading A Man Lies Dreaming (lies meaning what exactly?), I couldn't help but think about the equally subversive notion put forward by my late friend, the actor Bradley Porter, who liked to maintain  that if  Israel was meant to come into existence, as religious Jews were wont to say, only after the coming of the messiah, then that country could only have been founded on false pretences. Or, if that religious prerequisite was true, that, combined with the notion that the holocaust necessitated the state of Israel, must mean the person who instigated the holocaust which led to the state of Israel could only have been the messiah. As  Bradley liked to say, "Oy vey, in spades... " In any case, it's definitely something for Tidhar to consider.

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