Book Review - Maybe this Time

by Alois Hotschnig

Translated by Tess Lewis

Peirene Press, £8.99

Alois Hotschnig’s sombre yet quirky tales are not easy to define. They deal with slippery subjects such as memories and memory loss, alienation and the uncanny.

The collection is peopled by various misfits who may have lost their minds or just their way. The opening story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, focuses on a man obsessed with watching the rituals of the couple next door, an unnerving sensation he describes as a “craving to creep under my neighbours’ skin”.  This sense of dislocation recurs throughout the collection.

In ‘The Beginning of Something’, a character can’t remember who or where he is and finds himself troubled by the “unintelligible paragraphs” of a letter: “No one can escape themselves, I read, there is no escape from one’s self.”

Some form of mental disturbance is at the heart of many of the stories. ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’ has a man struggling with his jumbled recollections: “On one and the same day he married and stood, an old man, at his wife’s grave only to find himself the next moment in the divorce court believing he had got off lightly. Hours later he found himself unable to cope with the loss. He became a happy father and could not bear the thought of having children. He was a student attending the school in which he taught…”

Many of Hotschnig’s characters are looking for something or someone to fill their emptiness. The title story, with echoes of Beckett, is about a family forever waiting for the elusive Uncle Walter to appear (the only thing for certain is that he will not come). In another tale, a grieving father refuses to leave the lake where he lost his son.

There’s a nod to Kafka in ‘Encounter’, in which the destruction of a small creature, armed with pincers and a carapace (eaten by ants) is rendered in careful, detailed prose. Equally surreal is ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ where a man is drawn to the home of a strange old woman who keeps dolls, some of which look just like him.

Hotschnig’s repetition of themes and the crossover of imagery allow the nine stories to reflect one another. He delights in making unexpected connections between objects, events and sensations that help to illuminate the isolating effects of confused minds, strange fixations and the certainty of uncertainty.

What one takes away from these delicately written, almost dreamlike snapshots, lucidly translated from Austrian German by Tess Lewis, is a vivid sense of life’s fragility.

Originally published in Tribune Magazine 21  October 2011