Fiction – Kindle edition. Translated from the German by Tess Lewis. Peirene Press, 2011. Originally published 2006. 110 pgs. Library copy.
The publisher of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, compared Hotschnig to Franz Kafka in her short introduction to this short story collection, writing that “here we have a Kafkaesque sense of alienation – not to mention narrative experiments galore!”. Having never read Kafka, I cannot comment on the similarity between Hotschnig and Kafka.
What I can comment on is the second sentence of Ziervogel’s introduction describing the content of these stores: “outwardly normal events slip into drama before they tip into horror”. This description is most evident in the story ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’ in which a man is invited into an older woman’s house and learns she has an enormous collection of dolls, whom she calls “her children”.
The woman shows the narrator one that looks exactly like him and shares his name, Karl. Horrified, the man resolves to stay away yet finds himself drawn back to the house out of a sense of connection to the doll-version of himself. The story – one of the longer ones in the collection – is deeply unsettling. Not just because of the creepy dolls, but because of the questions it raises about identity and connection.
Are our identities formed by the connections we share with others? What happens when these connections are imaginary? How does fixating on others alleviate our feelings of loneliness?
That latter question is especially raised in the first story of this collection, ‘The Same Silence, The Same Noise’. A man becomes addicted to spying on his neighbors and trying to understand how they might view him, which leads him to realize that his identity has merged into theirs. He cannot see himself separate from them even as he longs to see himself as a wholly-formed individual.
The final story in the collection, ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’, also examines how identities become merged in a faceless, urban setting. In this story, a man arrives home to find someone else’s name on the door of his apartment. His neighbors and friends call him by that name, and he finds himself reporting to work under this new name. Yet, when he arrives home to the same apartment, he finds a different name on the door. His neighbors – the ones who insisted they knew him the night before – now introduce themselves as new acquaintances to the man.
These three stories were the standout ones in this nine-part collection for me. I found them unsettling, particularly in the way the stories foster a sense of alienation even as the author contemplates the meaning and fluidity of identity.
Very few people are named in the collection with most characters referred to as “the man”, making it difficult for the reader to assign identities to the different characters. Unfortunately, this also means that many of the stories blur together, which is why I’d consider this a mixed bag. Some stellar stories, some utterly forgettable.