“We’ll always have Nuremberg.”
A Man Lies Dreaming explores an alternate universe in which the Nazis lose the 1933 election to the Communists and are forced into exile. This fantasy universe exists in the dreams of Schomer, a Jewish author of pulp-fiction (shund) detained in Auschwitz. Within the fantasy, Hitler (‘Wolf’) ekes out a living as a noir-esque private eye in a London dominated by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts. Both worlds are highly, disgustingly unpleasant, both literally and ideologically. Wolf inhabits a world of grotesque sex and abuse. Some particularly graphic scenes make for difficult reading. Their details are presented uncompromisingly, and often reflect aspects of the uncompromising degradation of the concentration camp in which Schomer is detained. While links between the two worlds are not openly explored in any great depth, the presence of, say, extreme coldness or violent injury in Auschwitz are reflected in the dream. Schomer’s sections constitute a minority of the novel and, unsurprisingly, consist of a brutal depiction of life within a concentration camp.The inevitability of this sense of despair, in both the real and the fantasy versions of history, carries a strong, dark message.
Wolf’s world takes up the majority of the novel, and rightly so, containing the most original concepts of the work. We are treated to alternate versions of all the big names of Nazism, with Leni Riefenstal being the most entertaining. Moments of out-right humour like this one stand in contrast to the more restrained, tongue-in-cheek humour inevitably accompanying such a portrayal of Hitler throughout the rest of the novel.
The alternate history depicts a world populated almost entirely by characters with extreme ideologies and extreme prejudices: “‘Marxism must be destroyed,’ Mosley said. ‘It is the poisoned ideology of the Jewish race.'” In a world without the Nazis to discredit fascism, Mosley and the British Union of Fascists rise to power in Britain. In the final pages of the novel, we even hear Mosley talk of a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of the Jews. The message that this world tells is ultimately that the evil of the Nazis could only ever have been diverted, never subdued. This message rings especially true when we consider the similarity of Mosley’s slogans to those of the right-wing in modern Britain: “Putting Britain First!” Mosley even makes a reference to “Bongo Bongo Land.” On the night of Mosley’s election, Wolf has a vision of modern day London complete with London Eye and the Shard, this flash-forward perhaps a hint at the inevitable recurrent uprising of fascist tendencies.
To what extent is Wolf Hitler? He is never named as such. He is certainly a character defined by extreme anti-Semitism, but this is a Hitler who was never given the opportunity to carry out the Holocaust. The evilness of his character is toned down somewhat, perhaps inevitably if he is to be a protagonist (even an anti-heroic one). At one point, Wolf frees a group of trafficked female Jews to take their revenge upon their captor.The act is contradictory for Hitler, but perhaps not for Wolf. At some points, Wolf’s anti-Semitism feels a little like lip-service, and it is precisely at these moments that one realises how distinct a character Wolf is from Hitler (even the moustache is absent). This is no bad thing, allowing this what-if universe to explore the well-worn figure of Adolf from an original perspective.
Also worth noting is the irony of the position in which Wolf finds himself. He often finds himself masquerading as a Jew. Furthermore, under Mosley he is, as a European immigrant, exposed to the kind of persecution which the real-world Hitler inflicts on the Jews. It is of course satisfying to see Hitler forced to taste his own medicine, and to be reminded that, when the scent of persecution of minorities is in the air, no-one is safe.
Overall, the novel is not an easy read, even though at times it is an entertaining one. The alternate-history concept, however is superbly well handled and is well worth reading for. Hitler is a difficult character to portray in an original way, being as he is the cause of so many secondary school history syllabi and History Channel documentaries. Despite this, A Man Lies Dreaming succeeds in providing an original and intriguing portrayal of the dictator.