My first exposure to the work of Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig came when Peirene Press published Maybe This Time in 2011. Peirene are often the first to introduce a writer to an English speaking audience, but on this occasion Hotschnig had appeared once before when his third novel, Leonardo’s Hands, was translated by Peter Filkins in 1999 for the University of Nebraska Press. Leonardo’s Hands is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, but it still feels fragmented, its central experience broken into narrative pieces which the reader must put together, not inappropriate for a novel concerned with the healing process.
An indication that the reader will have to reconstruct the novel’s wholeness is that its starting point is not revealed until page 34:
“Police are still completely in the dark in their search for a driver who fled the scene of an accident. Innsbruck police know the driver was involved in the crash…claiming the lives of two people…Twenty-four-year-old Anna K is still in critical condition. Though she survived, she has not yet come out of a coma…”
As by this time we have acclimatised ourselves to the fact that the novel’s protagonist, Kurt Weyrath, is a part of an ambulance crew (or rescue worker in the terms of the translation), our initial reaction to the news report (one of a number of different texts to be found in the narrative) is that chronology is intact. It soon becomes clear, however, that Weyrath is the fleeing driver and his subsequent career change is an attempt to redeem himself. (In his introduction, Filkins tells us that Rettung, the German for ‘rescue’, also means ‘salvation’).
The news report, a device used again in the events of the novel’s conclusion, provides a context for the novel’s other voices. These include anonymous reflections on the job of rescue worker:
“Indifference was a professional tool without which it was impossible to do the job, as indispensable as the latex gloves that were always nearby.”
Also unattributed conversations, letters, and lost fragments of dialogue:
“But where are you really talking me?”
The effect of this is to imbue everything with wider significance by robbing it of a particular context, while at the same time insisting that the reader create a context if they wish to understand the novel as a narrative. That last question, which lies entirely alone, is clearly a patient inquiring, but can also be read as a plea from the reader. The earlier advice, whether Weyrath’s thoughts or generic counselling, serves to point out his weak spot. When told at a traffic accident he can stop searching, he hears Anna’s voice:
“Look further here, Kurt, you can’t drive away again, you have to be here for me, do you hear, Kurt?”
Weyrath cannot find salvation in his new role and instead takes up position at Anna’s bedside:
“Sit down next to me, Kurt, that way we’ll be together. Pick me up, why don’t you say something, grab hold of me. My eyes, look into my eyes. I’m opening my eyes.”
Eventually Anna does wake up and the novel’s second half goes on to chart their relationship. Anna has, of course, been a blank space until now; her character almost incidental. In what develops Hotschnig demonstrates the complexity, perhaps even the futility, of atonement.
Leonardo’s Hands (the title refers to Da Vinci’s Annunciation where Anna feels the message is conveyed and accepted by the angel and Mary’s hands) is a short novel (less than 150 pages) but its style means that it feels like a long journey for the characters– the reader is filling in the gaps, after all. For the same reason, despite our access to their inner lives, our understanding is only partial. When, towards the end, Anna says about their story, “We have something on our side that doesn’t really exist, we call it the truth. We will clear ourselves through inconsistencies,” she is to some extent describing Hotschnig’s approach. Filkins likens it to trying to understand a crisis by channel –hopping between interview, report, analysis. This gives the novel an invigorating urgency that is difficult to resist.