Maybe This Time, By Alois Hotschnig, trans. Tess Lewis

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The Independent Culture

Many words have now been written on Alois Hotschnig's new book, a wild success in its native Austria. Most describe reviewers' responses, with the emphasis on adjectives such as "baffled" or "bewildered". None I have seen describe the actual contents of this volume of short stories.

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After all, there's nothing difficult in relaying that one concerns a wounded beetle devoured alive by an army of ants; another, a boys' outing to a summer island; a third, an old lady compulsively tidying a garden hedge, observed by an elderly nun. A man loses – or uses, or abuses – his son; and a visit to a GP is intercepted by a car accident.

It's not simply that the stories play with the reversible roles of voyeur and victim, or the ambiguity of the narrator as protagonist. It is more that the reader's standpoint is sabotaged in exactly the same manner as the author's own. As the latter repeatedly switches vantage point - from voyeur to victim to (possible) perpetrator - so the former has to work hard to keep up with him.

Not since Julio Cortázar's game of Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read in any order to comprise alternative narratives, has an author so daringly undertaken to challenge the reader. Repeatedly compared to Kafka (perhaps because of the beetle story), Hotschnig has more in common with Cortázar, the innovatory – if wordier - Argentine novelist.

For Hotschnig shares a deep and daring preoccupation with questing and questioning. What is fiction? We are obliged to ask, if an honest author writes it. And to ask "Who writes fiction?" is but a short step to querying the complementary identity of writer and reader. Here, mirrors and water are as recurrent features as time and temperature. "Morning, Noon and Night" refer to a doctor's prescription, but also to the way in which we telescope time and live out our night dreams by day.

It's all in the language. All the more powerful, then, that Tess Lewis's phenomenal translation captures a world expressed in shifting tenses and inverting subjects and objects. Composer Thomas Larcher has taken interpretation one stage further and created episodic music from fragments of Hotschnig's text. If true music is the space between the notes, then this must be a perfect transition from literary page to musical stave.

Alois Hotschnig and Thomas Larcher are performing together at the 'Notes and Letters' festival at King's Place, London N1, on Sunday 9 October. Amanda Hopkinson is professor of literary translation at City University

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