Book Review: “Maybe This Time” — The Fragility of Personal Identities in Surreal Worlds
The nine tales found in Maybe This Time chart the unnerving, psychological transformations of its characters. Its style forces us to reconsider our ways of reading and our childlike dependency on narrative authority.
Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig. Translated from the German by Tess Lewis. Pereine Press, 2011, Kindle Edition, $6.67. (Original in German: Die Kinder Beruhigte Das Nicht. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2006)
By Joseph Burke
Author told me that a few years ago that a man approached him at a reading and said, “I am big fan.” Hotschnig thanked him. Staring intently, this stranger continued: “I know every line of your work. Test me.” Hotschnig smiled politely. The man insisted: “Let’s sit at the table over there. Test me.” Disconcerted but curious, Hotschnig followed him. He picked a line from one of his writings: “Suddenly snow, everything buried, winter.” The man fidgeted and looked around. “Leonardo’s Hands, page 97.” Again and again, the man was correct.
This anecdote could be the beginning of one of Hotschnig’s new short stories in Maybe This Time, with the seemingly mundane moving to the evermore sinister. This is the Austrian’s first collection of short stories to appear in English. It is deceptive and disorienting, at times uncomfortably humorous but always clinically perceptive. The language is, thanks to an astute translation by Tess Lewis, devastating.
The nine tales found in Maybe This Time chart the unnerving, psychological transformations of its characters. Its style forces us to reconsider our ways of reading and our childlike dependency on narrative authority. We are brought to new territory within ourselves as we learn to doubt and question what we are told.
Hotschnig is an acclaimed author in the German-reading world with Süddeutsche Zeitung claiming that “He is one of the best writers of his generation.” With many national and international prizes to his name, Hotschnig is, nevertheless, still largely unknown amongst Anglophone readers. Comparisons to Thomas Bernhard and Franz Kafka are often made, but, ultimately, the links are superficial and uninformative.
Hotschnig’s previous work has tackled Austria’s difficult and unresolved past. Leonardo’s Hands follows the guilt-ridden plight of Kurt Weyrath as he tries to manage the mental wreckage of a fatal car accident that he was responsible for. The novel was strongly praised both as an account of personal suffering and as national allegory. A more recent novel, Ludwig’s Room, peels the layers of a community that has concealed its complicity in the operations of a forced labor camp.
Maybe This Time can be seen, in a certain light, as further developing such Austrian concerns. Hotschnig harnesses the clarity of style and brevity of form found in Trümmerliteratur (“rubble literature”) to investigate the fragility of personal identities in surreal worlds. The debris of Maybe This Time, however, is not bricks and mortar but that of human psychology, twisted and broken.
For instance, the story “Maybe This Time, Maybe Now” depicts a family who repeatedly wait for a relative named Walter, though we are not sure he even exists: “The names of the others are mentioned. Yet it’s only his name everybody thinks about. However, no one asks after him, on that we agreed a long time ago.” The illogical familial situation, as with Austria itself, is underpinned by an unspoken past and a heavily cryptic present.
Furthermore, Hotschnig is advancing, somewhat obliquely, the post-war challenge to the Heimat (homeland). The Heimatroman of nineteenth-century, German-language literature encouraged spiritual affinities with the land, which inspired the Nazis early in the next century. In the wake of war and genocide, it became necessary to explicitly challenge this mythical anthem. This need remains relevant, given that a virulent far right is still active in Austria. Hotschnig’s stories virtually eliminate any sense of domesticity, banishing the reassurances of a particular time or place. The effect is to make the reader concentrate on being in the mind of the narrator: “A blank wall. That is what I faced every time, that is how it begins. My eyes trace the expanse of the wall, from top to bottom, from bottom to top” (“Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut”).
These characters are, nevertheless, troubled in their displacement and long to find settled identities. This is evident in the closing story, “You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers,” where the narrator undergoes exponential shifts of personality: “He was a student in the school in which he taught. He performed surgery and woke from anesthesia . . . And so on constantly, continuously, without interruption. It exhausted him, wore him out.” The fluidity of identity is tiring and deep within him lies a need for place: “Yet he wanted to return to the place where it all began, to be closer to his own history. At least that is what he thought, regardless of whose flat it might have been or whose life he had lived at the time, or was living now.” But doubts remains even after we learn about the complications of this past.
Despite these historical undercurrents, the texts also work independently of politics, thanks to their straight, simple prose. Hotschnig, who underwent medical training prior to becoming a full-time writer, provides a detached assessment of social interactions. In this sense, the story “Encounter” is pivotal. The methodical dismembering of an insect by an army of ants is an impressive piece of Hobbesian reportage that also draws on Hotschnig’s meticulous dissection of human identities: “They nibbled and gnawed at the body and hollowed it out until it was light enough. Then they carried the husk away.”
Comparably, “Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut” traces the slow descent of a man whose self-control wanes after he is confronted by a stranger with a doll made in his image. This culminates in his miniature self being consumed: “She slavered over the little hand, and pulled it back out of her mouth where the fingers had begun to dissolve. The more often they disappeared into her mouth the smaller they got.”
Descriptions of compulsive patterns of behavior delineate, with a microscopic intensity, the mysterious operations of human curiosity and fear. The opening story “The Same Silence, The Same Noise” begins with a man who has just moved into a new house. He is perturbed by the unusual behavior of his neighbors who sit out on their jetty all day, seemingly oblivious to his presence: “Exactly what kind of ritual I was witnessing I could not tell. Yet I was there every day, despite myself, craving the sight of it.”
In Hotschnig’s stories “madness” is something less sensational than we might otherwise expect—it is the day-to-day shifting of our public and private selves, our inconsistent evaluations and unjustifiable habits. The site of psychic trauma remains uncertain; are these characters unstable due to others or themselves? As we trail the narrator through “The Same Silence, The Same Noise,” his own actions become increasingly dubious: “But they let it happen. They pretended they simply didn’t see me, even when I rowed past and took pictures of them from my boat.”
The tightness of the texts means we are held rigidly to the unfolding of events but are unable to make sense of the characters’ thoughts and actions.The result is then, on the whole, intimately described figures who we struggle to empathize with. We cannot share their rationales. Their feelings are unexpected, though we breathe and dream with them. They react, or fail to react, as we may sensibly anticipate them to. Frequently, all we can do is laugh.
We breach boundaries of privacy only to feel estrangement: “The arms weren’t my arms. I looked down at myself and knew the mirror was after me again” (“The Beginning of Something”). As we work through the stories in Maybe This Time, we come to sense that for Hotschnig there is a dizzying difference between seeing and observing, reading and understanding.
Hotschnig’s seemingly fanatical admirer at that reading of his work was Sead Muhamedagic. The inspiring Croatian is, in fact, blind since birth but has, through years of intense effort, become a respected translator. On the evening in question, Muhamedagic was playfully using a special braille device under the table to identify the selected quotes. Maybe This Time plots how ordinary moments can descend into tense and volatile crises without much warning. It also shows with patience and good humor, we can learn something important. Most crucially, to always check under the table.