-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson-
Peirene Press has been producing a series of short story collections called The Man, which follows on neatly from their previous series, The Female Voice. Peirene aims to bring international writers to an English-reading audience, through translations of short story collections – their previous publications feature three female then three male authors. I admire a publisher with that sort of commitment to gender equality and international outlook.
I also admire a publisher producing small books as lovely as those printed by Peirene Press. Their short story collections are all about clean lines and a certain simple elegance. They’re also a very handy size for carrying around with you, and won’t take long to read through – especially if all of the collections are as engaging as the one I’ve just finished.
The third collection in Peirene’s The Man series is Alois Hotschnig’s Austrian German Maybe This Time, translated by Tess Lewis. Hotschnig’s stories are largely told by explicitly male narrators, and that seems to be how Maybe This Time (or Die Kinder beruhighte das nicht, in the original – and several stories contain the idea of troubled children mentioned in the German title) fits the theme of The Man series. There are no flashy car chases or explosions here, Hotschnig’s work unfolds gently and rewards close reading, saving its shocking (and sometimes beautiful) moments for a story’s closing image.
And some of those moments are beautifully bittersweet. That may not be the case with the final image of ‘Encounter’, in which a dying insect is devoured from within by ants, but is very much the case with ‘Morning, Noon and Night’, in which the sense of loss comes like a hammer-blow at the end of a story that has wandered and drifted around summer’s day street, tragedy lurking beneath the surface. But it is a beautiful hammer-blow, in its subtlety and in the way it smashes a hole through the otherwise peaceful street, subverting all that has gone before it without anyone noticing.
Hotschnig returns time and again to that sense of loss, of something not being in the right place or lacking altogether. Peirene Press compare him to Franz Kafka, and there is something Kafkaesque about two stories in particular in Maybe This Time. They are stories where identity is fluid, shifting and impossible to pin down – the very elusiveness of this identity means it’s not identity at all, but rather a misplaced concept of self that doesn’t equate to reality.
Loss sits heavily over other stories, for example in the case of a man looking for his son and allowing other children to briefly take his son’s place. The fisherman, his endless quest quietly muted and understated, allows the identity of other children to slide in his own mind, filling a hole in his life for a moment. In ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ an elderly woman is compensating for her grown-up children’s absence with dolls she thinks of as her children – dolls who look exactly like other children of the neighbourhood. Hotshnig builds this creepy little story delicately and masterfully, gradually allowing his narrator’s life to be first absorbed into the woman’s and then dominated by her. There’s something of Roald Dahl, never mind Kafka, at work.
Karl, the narrator of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, demonstrates perfectly the principle at work in so much of Hotschnig’s writing. The stories of Maybe This Time are stories with a gaping hole which sucks in everything around it. Karl knows he shouldn’t return to the dolls and the woman’s house, is even afraid to, but can’t stop himself. The narrator of ‘The Same Silence, The Same Noise’ doesn’t want to keep watching his indolent neighbours on the next jetty, but can’t draw himself away – in fact, their indifference to him merely serves to fuel his obsession.
Hotshnig’s stories are stories on the edge. Stories on the edge of obsession, almost always, stories on the literal edge of a lake, sometimes. ‘The Light in My Room’, with the fisherman, gives a good idea of the feature common to much of Maybe This Time. The room is on the edge of the fisherman’s lake, in the centre of which lies an island that draws to itself all the people nearby, at one time or another. Children flock to play on it, and it draws the attention of the adults whether they realise or not. That island is the gaping heart of Hotschnig’s stories, an absence that attracts as it repels. The people around the edges are forever looking in, watching, unable to escape or look away. Hotschnig explores the little obsessions in life that grow and grow and come to dictate our very existence.
Peirene Press has done well here, and Lewis’ translation serves the original text well, conveying that deep loss as well as the sense of watching life from the edges. In 2012, Peirene has another three collections coming out – this time the theme will be bite-size epics, and they’re bound to be just as lovely little books as Hotschnig’s.
At the heart of Maybe This Time is an absence that attracts, a rejection that draws the reader and character inescapably inwards, and I advise you to read it because it’s beautifully done.