I’m glad I discovered this short story collection on Andrew Blackman’s blog thanks to his intriguing review (here is the link). Austrian author Alois Hotschnig is well worth reading. While I don’t see any resemblance with Thomas Bernhardt as some critics did (despite the fact that they are both Austrian), I did find quite a lot of parallels with Kafka, Patricia Highsmith and with one of my favourite authors, Dino Buzzati, another master of the uncanny. Hotschnig describes situations and people who make you feel quite uneasy.
Freud has written an essay called Das Unheimliche which is usually translated by The Uncanny. “Uncanny” does however not capture the full meaning of the word “unheimlich”. Many books, essays and articles have been written about the difficulty to translate the word into other languages. What I’m getting at here is the fact that all of Hotschnig’s stories represent this concept. “Das Unheimliche” as defined by Freud signifies an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. (If you are interested in Freud’s essay here is the English translation).
The collection contains 9 short stories which circle all around people who watch and wait. Just the fact that they don’t do anything but that their presence can be felt at any moment makes them scary. Usually we are afraid of people doing something bad to us but in these stories the fact that the characters are constantly present and stare and watch feels menacing. It gets even more creepy once you realize the narrator is part of this. He is someone who has given up on life and stares and watches. Hotschnig’s stories illustrate incredibly well what passive-aggressive is all about.
The title story of the English edition Maybe This Time captures another uncanny element. In this case it’s the presence of an absence. The parents of the narrator don’t go out anymore as they wait for Walter, the father’s brother, to appear. The children have never seen him. They know he exists but they never meet him. Either he has just gone or he will arrive after they went. Without being there he is omnipresent and the people in the story are like the soldiers in Buzzati’s Deserto dei Tartatri waiting for something that will never happen without realizing that their life will be over without having been lived.
Identity is another element that Hotschnig explores. In his last story called “Du kennst sie nicht, es sind Fremde” (which I would translate a s “You don’t know them, they are strangers”), a man is someone else every time he enters his apartment. The apartment changes as well and so do the people he meets. Depending on whom he faces, he is another person and after a while he chases this experience of seeing himself as someone else through other’s eyes.
I can’t say anything about the translation as I read the German original. They only thing that struck me was the title. Very often the title of a collection of short stories is equal to the title of one of the stories in the book. The German original is called Die Kinder beruhigte das nicht which means “This didn’t calm the children”. There is no story in the book with this title but the title itself has something unsettling, captures the mood of the book. Why the editor of the English translation chose the title Maybe This Time which is also the title of one of the stories, eludes me. It’s as if a tiny but significant part had been left out.
As abstract and intellectual as the themes may seem that Hotschnig explores, it’s important to add that his stories are full of vivid descriptions of everyday life. With a few words he evokes the quiet calm of a garden in the early morning which is only disturbed by the distant voices of children. It’s because these stories capture the familiar so well that the unfamiliar strikes us with so much force.