Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Maybe This Time: Alois Hotschnig

Peirene Press specialise in slim books, translated from a variety of European authors they think we should know more about.  I've read a couple now and I'm hooked. It's so refreshing to get away from the cloned literature churned out by the American and UK mainstream publishers.

The stories in Maybe This Time are weird.  Perhaps if you managed to cross Raymond Carver with Kafka you might get close.  These are dark stories of obsession and illusion.  Alois Hotschnig does disturbed states of mind really well and these stories will take you out of your comfort zone, but in a good way.  I read them twice before I really managed to penetrate all the layers that are there.  The prose is spare - not a word extra - and it's very subtle.  There are nuances of meaning I only got on the second reading. 

The title story  'Maybe This time'  is dominated by the absent member of the family. The narrator tells us about his/her parents 'One of them always used to stay at home. For as long as I can remember they've never left the house together, and for some time now they haven't even left separately, fearing that Walter might come and they wouldn't be here.'  It examines family ties and the price that has to be paid for evading them. 

Unreliable narrators are a given.  You can't trust anyone.  In 'The Beginning of Something' the protagonist is unable to wake from what he thinks is a dream, walking through familiar yet unfamiliar rooms where nothing, even notes written the night before, can be relied on to tell the truth.  The reader inhabits his delusional consciousness with the same precarious grasp of reality and feels the ground shifting beneath them as they read - treading literary quicksand.

Hotschnig is good at the surreal.  In another story (Then a Door opens and Swings Shut) there are rooms full of macabre dolls 'old and new, clothed and naked ... young, middle-aged and old', and among them the protagonist finds one that is just like himself.  

Another story 'You don't know them, they're strangers', is the most surreal of all. The narrator arrives at the door of a flat believing that he is arriving for the first time, but it seems that this is his home, his neighbours know him well and he is shown photographs of himself from earlier times.  He goes out for a drink with a man he claims not to know.  'From the first sentence, it was clear that this man also took him for the person his neighbours believed him to be.  After a while the stranger was as familiar to him as if they had been childhood friends'.

In the morning he sets off for the office at an unknown location;  and again everyone greets him as familiar, though he believes it is his first day.  'He sat at a desk he sensed was his desk, but he was far from certain'.  But in the evening the neighbours greet him as if he's just arrived, a new name is on his flat door and there are different things inside it, although the identity card looks just like him.  A woman calls for him and tells him they are splitting up.  This goes on for some time.  'Every morning he left his flat and was recognised, even if not as the person he thought he was at the time.'

In the end he learns to adapt, to accept that everyone perceives him as someone different and that he simply has to be that person. 'Without disguising himself, he went around disguised, if not from others then simply from himself.'

Maybe This Time is another excellent read from Peirene Press which you can buy in paperback, but it’s on Kindle for only 99p - at last a publisher who knows the value of e-books! I’ve got my eyes on The Brothers, a dark tale from Finland, next!

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