I remember an ethics exercise from school: We were asked would you save someone if he was drowning? What if the man drowning was Hitler? Then, another twist, what if the man was Hitler before he did anything, but, somehow, you knew he would in the future do terrible things? There were different ways to argue and answer these questions, but one thing that stood out was how Hitler was always this embodiment of evil.
Tidhar asks his own what-if’s and gives his own take on Hitler with a premise about an author who is a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and he dreams of this story where Hitler and the Nazis did not rise to power; instead, Communists took power, and Hitler is a failed nobody and refugee in England barely getting by as a private investigator. Most of the story is in Hitler's point of view and his journal entries when he takes on two cases--looking for a missing Jewish girl and uncovering assassination attempts against a politician--during which he uncovers a deeper conspiracy and a much darker picture of events happening.
On one level, it is a typical pulp detective story where the detective takes on a case that is more than it seems, gets threatened and beat up often by dangerous men, and encounters dames of dubious honor. On another level, it is a character study of one of the most reviled figures in history, though fleshed out in a fictional context that blends history and fact with imagination to fill in the gaps. Getting into Hitler's head does not mean Tidhar portrays a misunderstood man or some hidden sentimentality that makes him more sympathetic. Usually, people see themselves as the hero of their own stories, and this Hitler is no different, though he stretches that definition. He is not a likeable character, but his portrayal makes him understandable and human.
The story is a dark read and not an easy one, either. It alternates with the "real" world, going into the mind of the prisoner at Auschwitz, and Tidhar does not sugarcoat those sections. It shows Tidhar's writing skills that he shows but does not tell readers what the final message is, nor what to think of Hitler. His writing is eloquent and nuanced, delving into the dark side of human nature. Even without a Hitler, someone else can rise to power, another revolution and force can gain momentum, and others can commit atrocities. More than wish fulfillment or revenge fantasy, human nature is explored here through one man's story. Tidhar includes footnotes of the historical details, research, and speculation involved, also talking about his personal connection to the story--his mother was born in a refugee camp to parents who were at Auschwitz, and he had lost many family members to the Holocaust.
Look for A Man Lies Dreaming in the VBPL catalog. For more of Tidhar’s alternative history works, try Osama and The Violent Century (see review).
Review by Tracy V.