Peirene Press continues to do a great job in discovering top-quality European fiction – novellas and short story collections which always have something interesting to offer. I’ve reviewed a couple of their novellas on the blog, The Mussel Feast and The Blue Room, both of which are excellent thought-provoking reads. Peirene curate their books by theme, and Maybe This Time (a collection of short stories first published in Austrian German in 2006) is the third in their Male Dilemmas: Quests for Intimacy series.
Hotschnig’s stories are quite difficult to describe, but the experience of reading this collection is akin to experiencing a lucid dream, one that blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary. In her introduction to the book, Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene Press, says of Hotschnig’s work ‘outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror,’ and I can see what she means by this statement. Initially, many of these stories appear to be heading in a certain direction, but then something shifts, and we begin to question our understanding of events. In some instances, the change is relatively subtle, but in others we are rapidly pitched into dark and unsettling territory.
In The Same Silence, the Same Noise, we encounter a man observing his neighbours as they sit in deckchairs on their jetty. As the story progresses, he becomes obsessed and irritated by his neighbours’ presence and their indifference towards him, so much so that he begins to feel a growing sense of paranoia:
They lay next to each other on their deckchairs, arms by their sides, legs bent or straight. For hours they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves. Every day, every night, always the same. Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear. At first, I had thought them part of the idyll I had come here to find, but now their constant presence irritated me. When I realized how easily one could see into my house from their jetty, I felt annoyed, caught out, exposed. Under surveillance, even. Yet I was the one who never let them out of my sight. (pg. 12, Peirene Press)
As this story progresses, the narrator steps up his observations, distancing himself from his friends in the process, and he realises his fixation with these neighbours is an attempt to escape from his own life. And this brings me to one of the main themes in Hotschnig’s collection, that of identity:
They refused contact, yet they willingly exposed themselves to me. I had caught the scent of their lives, which obviously had reached some sort of premature end. I had fed on them, devoured them, and now I wanted more. I couldn’t resist absorbing their most fleeting emotions as my own, and so I carried them inside me and I lived out their disquiet, which was also my disquiet (pg. 17)
In the most unnerving story in the collection, Then a Door Opens a Swings Shut, an elderly woman leads a man – his name is Karl – into her house where he is confronted by a sprawling collection of dolls. Three of the dolls, which the woman calls ‘her children,’ represent her successful grown-up daughters. The situation takes a more disturbing turn when the woman introduces her visitor to Karl, a doll that bears an exact resemblance to the man himself. As our narrator allows himself to be drawn into the old woman’s life, there is a blending of identity between the man and the doll. It’s a very creepy story indeed, one that reminds me a little of some of Yoko Ogawa’s dark tales in Revenge.
Hotschnig explores another aspect of identity in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now (one of my favourites) in which a family come together and wait for Uncle Walter, the one member of their clan who never visits on these occasions. The narrator’s parents live in constant hope that Walter might show up one day, just to have everyone together for once. As we observe the family gathering, it’s almost as though the narrator’s parents fail to recognise others as individuals in their own right. No one else seems to matter except the elusive Walter; all other family members are subsumed into an amorphous formation. Here’s an extract from an early section of the story:
But Walter doesn’t come, at least not while we are there. We don’t make up for his absence, those of us who are present, and no matter how hard we try to distract them, to make them forget about Walter, it never works. The rest of us do count for something, but not enough compared with him, since Walter’s absence makes us all invisible in our parents’ eyes and in our own. Those who are missing are noticed, but only until they come through the door, join those who are waiting and disappear into the group. It’s always the same game, who’s there and who isn’t, how many are we now, and who might then still come and who not. (pg. 59)
As the story progresses, we begin to doubt Walter’s existence. After all, the younger family members have never laid eyes on him either in the flesh or photographs. He exists only through stories that pass through the family, through the expectations and dashed hopes that have passed from one generation to another:
In this sense, we have always lived with Walter. We know him and don’t know him. (pg. 60)
In another favourite story from the collection, Two Ways of Leaving, a man follows a woman as she goes about her day. At first we are led to assume that this man is a pursuing a stranger, perhaps for somewhat voyeuristic reasons. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these two individuals are connected is some way. Hotschnig cleverly leads our train of thought in a particular direction, only for the story to tilt slightly thereby challenging our assumptions in the process.
As I’m writing this post, I can see another theme emerging from this intriguing collection of stories – that of observation, the act of observing others from a distance, how we make assumptions about their lives, situations and motives. And there’s a good dose of ambiguity to these tales; in fact, I found a couple of them quite tricky to pin down. Hotschnig leaves plenty of space to allow the reader to draw their own interpretation of events, to make these rather eerie dreamlike stories their own. There is much food for thought here.
Stu at Winstonsdad’s blog has also reviewed this collection.
Maybe This Time is published in the UK by Peirene Press. Source: I won a copy of this book in the Peirene Press PeiQuiz – my thanks to the publisher.