A Man Lies Dreaming
By Lavie Tidhar
How to escape the inescapable; how to vent your pain, suffering, and anger for all you have lost and will yet lose for no other reason than you are a Jew; how, then, to escape Auschwitz? If you are Shomer (a nod to Sholem Aleichem), the author of popular shund pulp, you write a novel in your mind in which the chief perpetrator of your fate finds himself pummeled repeatedly, frustrated constantly, embittered always to rage, and condemned ironically to his personal version of hell. And so it begins when a dame, Isabella Rubinstein, walks into the office of a down and out London P.I., Herr Wolf, seeking her missing sister, Judith.
It’s the year 1939; however, it’s a 1939 different from what you’ll find in the history books. Rather, it’s the 1939 of Shomer’s imagination. Hitler and the Nazis lost the 1933 election to the Communists. The Nazis and their hangers-on were forced to flee Germany or perish. Now London teems with them, still operating true to their criminal characters. And worse, to Wolf’s indignantly jealous mind, the banner of National Socialism rests firmly in the hands of the weasel Oswald Mosley and his black shirt British Union of Fascists movement. Wolf could have had more, of course, as old cronies remind him, but he, unlike them, remains a man of principle (hmm, that sounds very familiar), though existing on scraps. Even in this world, even to a man of dubious and discredited principle, money talks; Wolf sets off to find Judith, and readers follow him into the underbelly of a London awash in intrigue, revolution, human depravity, and weird sexual perversions worthy of a lurid shund cover.
That’s the fantasy. Intercut throughout, intruding always like a festering wound, is reality. Reality is the slow, tortured crawl to death that is Auschwitz. Shomer creates to escape and, more, to extract retribution. However, the daily rhythm of living and dying in the camp is the lesser pain for Shomer. Greater, and maybe prime above his other reasons for conjuring his pulp tale, is memory of his wife, his children, their quotidian lives as a family, and the terrible moment of separation on the Auschwitz railroad platform. Nothing, not the cold, the firth, the slave labor, the degradation, the unrelenting inhumanity, nothing inflicts as much torment as his memories. In almost any other circumstance, they would be treasures. But in the bowels of Auschwitz they are like being constantly in the fires of hell. Shomer’s occupied mind is his firewall and his fiction is his revenge.
In the back of the book, Tidhar provides some historical context that includes brief comments on the parade of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the novel, as well as some Auschwitz victims. A highly recommended imaginative addition to alternate history and holocaust fiction. w/c