Maybe This Time is one of the earliest books published by Peirene Press, perfectly fitting their ethos of finding and promoting lesser known European novellas and authors.
Alois Hotschnig is an acclaimed writer of novels, short stories and plays in his Austrian homeland, but wasn’t well known in other parts of the world until Peirene commissioned an English translation of Maybe This Time.
Meike Ziervogel, Peirene’s founder said he chose to translate and publish this collection of short stories because of their “Kafkaesque sense of alienation – not to mention narrative experiments galore!”
The nine tales in this collection are certainly strange and a few are downright creepy. They have a dreamlike quality — disconnected episodes and situations that don’t make sense and which peter out without any resolution. When you get to the end, you think maybe you’ve understood only a fraction of what you’ve just read.
The first story The Same Silence, The Same Noise is told from the point of view of a man who becomes obsessed with his neighbours. He doesn’t understand why they spend all day, and every day, doing nothing except sit on their deckchairs and stare at the lake. They don’t read or even talk to each other.
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.
Occasionally the man rakes the edge of the lake but the purpose of this is never explained. We never get to learn the identity of this couple or the reason for their behaviour. Are they waiting for something to happen — or for someone?
There’s a different kind of waiting in Maybe This Time, Maybe Now where family gatherings are dominated by one question: will Uncle Walter make an appearance this time? He’s never shown up yet but the narrator’s parents always believe, this time will be different.
Their lives revolve around this mysterious figure. They seldom leave the house together just in case Uncle Walter will drop in unannounced, and they can’t bear the idea “that Walter might come and they wouldn’t be here.”
Walter’s not coming. That would be fine with us if only our parents didn’t live in expectation of him. They constantly hope that he might just show up, that when we get together at their place again, the whole family might just be there, all of us, as if we did in fact belong together, as if we were a whole, one more time, or for the first time rather, because it hasn’t happened yet, not once.
The most disturbing tale is Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut in which a man is invited into an old woman’s house. They’ve never met previously but she welcomes him as though she expected his arrival. He discovers her collection of dolls in different shades of repair and neatness. She picks out one doll that looks exactly like her visitor, and even has his name.
Then the story becomes ultra weird:
She stroked Karl’s head and looked me in the eye and placed the child’s finger in her mouth, kissing it tenderly for a long time and sucking on it. She slavered over the little hand, and pulled it back out of her mouth where the fingers had begun to dissolve.
Karl the narrator is repelled but also fascinated. He can’t keep away from the house, each visit drawing him closer and closer to his namesake.
Whether I liked it or not, I too had become one of the old woman’s dolls, or perhaps I had always been one. She sat me on her lap, and I let it happen, because in exchange she gave me something I wanted and each time craved more deeply – myself
The theme running through the Maybe This Time collection is about loss of identity and feelings of alienation. Hardly any of the characters are named — they’re just referred to as “the couple”, “the woman” or “the man” — and we get no sense of where in the world the tales are set or in which period of time. This lack of detail adds to the unsettling effect of reading these stories.
Individually they are interesting pieces of narrative but I would have enjoyed the collection more if there had been more variety in tone and atmosphere. Reading all of them in one sitting would be a mistake I think — best to ration them out so that you get the full effect of each tale.
Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig: Footnotes
This collection of short stories was first published in 2006 under the German title: Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht. An English translation by Tess Lewis was issued by Pereine Press in 2011. It was a Guardian Paperback of The Year.
Alois Hotschnig first studied medicine, then German and English in Innsbruck. His first published work was a novella Aus (Over), published in 1989. He was presented with the Austrian Advancement Award for Literature in 2003.