Review: A Man Lies Dreaming

Nazis, sex, violence


By Lavie Tidhar
Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99

November 1939: a beautiful and mysterious woman walks into a scruffy private eye's office. It is like something out of Raymond Chandler. What isn't from Chandler is the way the woman is described: "She had the face of an intelligent Jewess."

Lavie Tidhar is a young Israeli novelist, based in London. His novel is a curious hybrid: part-Chandler, part-Holocaust novel, part-Jack the Ripper. Throw in cameos from Oswald Mosley, Ian Fleming, Tolkien and Evelyn Waugh, and you can see we have something very strange, almost hallucinatory.

Then there's the sex. Lots of it and most of it explicit, nasty and perverse. Prostitutes are slashed by "the watcher in the dark". The private eye is even more kinky - as well as viciously antisemitic. And then there's the violence. Lots of murders, beatings up, knives, mutilation, syringes - and a circumcision. One of the prostitutes has a swastika carved into her chest… and every now and again the novel cuts to Auschwitz.

The detective is called Wolf. He's hired by the beautiful young woman to find her sister. They are both the daughters of a rich German-Jewish refugee. The sister has disappeared somewhere between Germany and London. Wolf is also hired by Oswald Mosley because Zionist terrorists are out to kill him.

One of the prostitutes has a swastika carved into her chest

American intelligence want Wolf to work for them, too, something to do with an anti-Communist plot. And then there is the Jack the Ripper figure, killing Soho prostitutes.

As the "Historical Note" and footnotes show, Tidhar has done his research. This is a very clever and smart book. You would call it post-modern if it wasn't such fun. There are clever references to Dashiel Hammett and Chandler and knowing quotes from Mein Kampf. And "Herr Wolf" is not at all what you expect, as you will realise somewhere around page 42.

But, while it often is fun, many readers will find this novel hugely offensive. The perverse sex and violence is one thing, mixing them with Nazis and the Holocaust is quite another.

There is the almost inevitable perverse scene with Ilse Koch ("The Beast of Buchenwald"), Nazis involved with white slavery and sex trafficking and so on.

Tidhar anticipates this criticism with a debate between two prisoners at Auschwitz, Prisoner 174517 and Prisoner 135633. Sex and violence has a place in writing about Auschwitz, argues the second prisoner, for it is Ka-Tzetnik. "But that is kitsch, and bordering on pornography," says the other, who is Primo Levi.

"Levi" is right. It is. And anticipating that criticism in a clever-clever way, does not make him less so.

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