Posts Tagged ‘maybe this time’

Maybe This Time

November 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alois Hotschnig

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig is the latest title from Peirene Press, the final title of its second year. It specialises in publishing books less than 200 pages long(so they can be “read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD”) from European writers little known in English (Hotschnig has had one novel translated into English before this). At three books a year – you can in fact subscribe – one would hope for a high level of quality control, and, if Maybe This Time is anything to go by, that is exactly what they have achieved. The book even opens with a brief endorsement from the publisher, though any use of the word ‘Kafkaesque’ near a volume of short stories is a little worrying as it seems to be a rather slapdash shorthand for anything other than gritty realism. However, in this case the cap doff to Kafka is not entirely inappropriate both in terms of style and resonance.

Typically we find ourselves immersed immediately in the mind-set of an anonymous character: Hotschnig isn’t interested in easing us in gently with descriptions of setting, back story, or even the small details s that writers use to humanise their characters. The first story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’ begins:

“Whenever I left the house, they lay on their jetty and when I came back, hours later, they were still lying there.”

Twelve pages later we know little more about the narrator beyond his obsession with his neighbours; we know little more about his neighbours; and there has been no interaction between the narrator and his neighbours. The narrator barely exists beyond his obsession:

“The more absorbed I became with my neighbours the more my life merged into theirs, the fewer visitors I had.”

The logic of the story soon takes us to the point that the narrator swims across to his neighbours’ jetty, but here Hotschnig surprises us again:

“But I no longer felt any desire to sit on any of the chairs and I made my way home through the gardens.”

Another writer would have left it there, but in the final few paragraphs the previous owner of the narrator’s house (about whom we, again, know nothing) appears and takes on the narrator’s role as voyeur:

“He sat there in my place and I watched him from the house. I didn’t take my eyes off him.”

This sense of losing identity is common to many of the stories. In the second story, ‘Two Ways of Leaving’, Hotschnig moves from one character (‘she’) to another (‘he’) halfway through. As the story progresses we discover that they were once in a relationship which has now ended: the story’s structure mirrors the break-up which seems inexplicable even to the couple:

“One day he left, without planning and for no reason. She didn’t ask why she just let it happen.”

The story is imbued with a sense of their separation: as he waits alone in the flat where he left her he remembers both looking at her from the balcony and looking up at her from the street. Identity and separation are also evident in perhaps the creepiest story, ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’. Here the narrator, Karl, encounters an old woman with a house full of dolls. One particular doll reminds him of himself:

“The doll had my name. And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me.”

The doll allows him to access his childhood memories, but the more he returns to the doll, the more his relationships outside that room deteriorate, making the story a parable about investing too much in the past.

Perhaps the story that best illustrates this concern with identity is the final one, ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’. In it the main character loses sight of his identity entirely:

“On his front door he read the name they had called him all evening.”

It is not simply that he has forgotten who he is; his identity changes throughout the story:

“The name on his door was not the same one he had signed on letters in the office. He went into the flat. What he discovered was new, different from what he remembered had been there that morning.”

Partly Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’, but he is also questioning our sense of who we are, just as his often apparently motiveless characters make us consider our motivations. While it is difficult to judge a writer on the strength of a few short stories, this collection at least is certainly worth reading.

Danger rating: just keep checking in with your loved ones that you are still who you were when you began reading…