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- Maybe This Time
- Peiriene Press, 110 pp.
An Uncomfortable Journey through Nowhere
Filled with unsettling images and language, Alois Hotchnig’s newly translated collection is an uncomfortable journey, but one made extremely rewarding by innovative narrative and pace.
Each of the nine stories in this slim volume are difficult to retell – characters are nameless and locations generic – yet, their force comes not from the particular.
One contains a man fascinated by the family living across the lake from him. They persist in ignoring his increasing interest in their inactivity: they sunbathe on deckchairs, they stand and scream silently into the air, they rake the lakebed – the usual.
Another man meets a geriatric lady who appears to own a doll representing all the stages of everyone’s lives around her. He meets her as the neighbour of old school friends, but before long travels the distance only to sit in her front room, staring at the dolls of his past. He sees his old, scuffed school shoes, his awful haircut as a teenager, even the bruise on his arm from a few weeks ago.
There is no dialogue in these stories; nothing acts as a breaker to the tension, as the slight repetition of each sentence and paragraph builds slowly to a miniature crescendo before the next story mutely overtakes it. Because of this, it doesn’t take long for the collection as a whole to take on meaning, and significance develops dramatically.
Fundamentally, Maybe This Time is populated by frustrated people, just as their languid actions cause frustration for the reader.
They return time and again to sit and watch dolls of their childhood. The man is transfixed as the lady takes each doll out in turn to comb their hair and brush down their miniature clothing. Meanwhile, there are half-hinted remarks concerning a recent break-up or lost love.
An entire family spend their lives waiting for a distant relation who, although always promising, never actually visits. They sit and wait by the phone, speaking in hushed voices in case they miss its trilling. They argue occasionally about the relation’s visit; what time, what day, but never about whether it will actually take place.
Hotschnig’s sense of humour is dark, almost vengeful, but there’s also a lyricism to the way he writes that brings the collection back from the brink.
One character is recognised by all he meets. That he doesn’t actually know any of them, and that they don’t actually know him, seems to be beside the point. Easier than explaining, he simply agrees and becomes the person they think he is. So, his life goes on:
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. He performed surgery and woke from anaesthesia. He raised bees, fell in love, mourned, was afraid and frightened others, and was happy. He was finally alone and intolerably alone. He couldn’t decide which car he wanted to buy. Then he pawned his television and wore his last frayed shirt.
Many a writer might shy away from such contradictions; they amuse, they’re confusing and relatively meaningless taken on their own.
But Hotschnig has at least the daring to present them as he likes.
His stories are not like American short stories – which usually thrill, entertain; they’re like bottle rockets of literature, intent on making the most of their slight frame. These are not like that. They are part of a whole and even this collection is merely what is revealed this one time.
What’s impressed is that elsewhere there’s more; of this story, of this collection, of these characters, they’re all being written out elsewhere and ultimately Hotschnig makes that place they inhabit the reader’s head.
And that’s one hell of an achievement for what is essentially a two-hour read.