I think this safely qualifies as high-concept.
There is a man called Shomer. He once was a writer. Cheap literature. Pulp fiction. Shund in Yiddish. Now he's a prisoner. In Auschwitz. But he dreams. And when he dreams he dreams in pulp images. He dreams of sex and death. He dreams of an alternative world. A world where the Communists seized power in Germany in the early 1930s.
But the dreams aren't about Germany. Or not directly. They're about London. They're about a London where Oswald Mosley is standing for election in 1939. A London of prostitutes and a smiling man with a knife, a Mitford or two and a private eye with a German accent. The private eye is called Wolf. It's possible you already know him or someone like him in our world. He's a man who dreams of what might have been if he'd come to power in Germany as had seemed possible in the early 1930s (maybe in our world he did). Instead, he's been hired by a "Jewess" to track down her missing sister, whom the family have tried to smuggle out of Communist Germany. Meanwhile, the smiler with the knife is killing prostitutes and Wolf may have to take the blame. And as this carries on, twist after twist, in another reality, our reality, Shomer is dreaming, not knowing if he'll survive tomorrow. Or the tomorrow after that.
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What we have then is history reimagined, recalibrated and rewritten as pulp fiction. Like I said, high-concept. Tidhar has form in this area. He made his name with the award-winning Osama, a story about a quest for a "fictional" terrorist. That book also saw the Israeli writer use the private eye form to talk about history and politics and violence.
If anything he raises the ante here. He is using the detective novel to talk about the ultimate obscenity of the 20th century. At one point Shomer is in the camp infirmary listening to another prisoner, one called Levi, talk about how writers can write about what goes on in Auschwitz. "Only by science, by using a language as accurate and dispassionate as possible can we describe the atrocities," Levi suggests. Another patient - Ka-Tzetnik, also a writer - thinks differently. "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." To write about it, Ka-Tzetnik suggests, you have to use the language of shund, the language of fantasy. "This is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz."
Here is the heart of the book. As Tidhar - whose own grandparents survived Auschwitz, though many of their relatives didn't - asks himself in the end-note: How does one write the Holocaust? This high-wire act of a book is his attempt. Does it work as pulp? Yes. It's nasty, clever, waspish and witty. It finds room for guest appearances from Leni Riefenstahl, Ian Fleming and Evelyn Waugh and quotations from everyone from Chandler to Ukip.
It makes one false step - a sex scene that may pique the interest of the organisers of the Bad Sex Award not so much for its sidestep into sadomasochistic Night Porter territory as for the use of the terrible phrase "engorged commodity". (Would even the worst shund writer let that go?)
That aside though, you turn the pages avidly. You read it for the pulp story. And you read it for the frame that surrounds it. And you can't stop reading.
Except ... you can't pretend not to see the abyss that falls away either side of each page. Lift your eyes at all and you notice the shadow of history pressing in, feel the terrible, crushing, annihilating weight of it. A Man Lies Dreaming seems to me a brilliant and potent thought experiment. Even so, I can't quite escape the feeling that maybe, just maybe, it was Levi not Ka-Tzetnik who was right.