I found Maybe This Time a very unsettling collection of short stories. I mean that in a good way. Being unsettled is often the prelude to thinking about things in a new way, and to me that’s one of the most important functions of literature.
The stories are very varied in style and content, but many of them deal with the question of identity in one way or another. In the first story, The Same Silence, The Same Noise, a man becomes addicted to spying on his neighbours. Yet he does not really seem interested in the neighbours themselves, but in seeing himself through their eyes. He is obsessed with why they don’t acknowledge him, and although it is he who is spying on them, he is the one who feels invaded by them, who tries to escape. His identity merges into theirs, and he realises that “in truth, it was myself I was now looking at.”
The final story, You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers, also deals with the merging of identities. A man comes home one night to a flat that has someone else’s name on the door but that seems familiar still, and his neighbours and friends call him by that name, even though it’s not his name and he doesn’t know the people who call him a friend. He goes to work in a part of town he’s never been to, again is recognised by his colleagues even though he doesn’t know them, and does a normal day’s work before returning home to find a different name on the door. The same neighbours who had known him the night before now introduce themselves as if for the first time.
See what I mean by unsettling? There’s a dreamlike quality to a lot of the stories, a weird kind of internal consistency that often doesn’t conform to real-world logic but nevertheless feels natural within the slightly warped reality of each story. And through many of the stories runs this same thread of loss of identity. In another one, The Beginning of Something, a man washes his face and raises his arms to wipe it with a towel, but then realises “The arms weren’t my arms.” In perhaps the most unsettling one of all, Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut, a man is invited into an old woman’s house, and although he doesn’t know her, she treats him as a long-overdue guest. She has an enormous collection of dolls, which she calls “her children”, and eventually she brings out one that looks exactly like the narrator and shares his name, Karl. She asks him, “Isn’t that why you’re here?” As he visits more regularly, he comes to identify more and more with the doll Karl, until:
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.
Apart from Karl, very few of the characters in the book are named. Many stories have a first-person narrator, and otherwise characters are referred to simply as “the woman”, “the man”, “the couple”, etc. It all has a profoundly alienating effect, especially when coupled with the weird meldings of identity. I’d thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who’s looking for something a little weird and disturbing and different. I’m planning to read more by the same writer, but can’t find much in English translation so maybe will have to dust off my schoolboy German.
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