I kept coming across glowing reviews of this book, winner of the European Union Prize for Literature, and so looked forward to reading it. I was very disappointed. The first two chapters promise an enjoyable read, but then the drudgery begins. The author stated his intention - to “rescue in fiction one of the many lives forgotten by history” - but what he wrote is more of a philosophical treatise than a fictional biography.
According to Smilevski, Adolfina, Freud’s “sweetest and best” sister, did not have an easy life: as a child she was sickly; as a young girl she was emotionally abused; as a young woman she had an ill-fated love affair; as an adult she institutionalized herself in a mental hospital; and in her later years she had to care for her ailing mother. At the end of her lonely existence was death in a concentration camp.
This is not an uplifting book. It is full of abuse, loneliness, abortions, suicides, and deaths. Adolfina’s mother keeps telling her, “’It would have been better if I had not given birth to you’” (34) and has only “words of contempt and ridicule about how [Adolfina] ate, how [she] laughed, how [she] walked” (48). (Maternal abuse almost seems a motif; the mother of one of Adolfina’s friends “tied her sons and daughters to their chairs” (68) and “burned all the clothes and books” (69) of one of her daughters.)
The “meaningless of existence” (137) is a topic of conversation over and over and over again.
Virtually everyone Adolfina meets suffers from depression. Rainer, her lover, “stared into an absence . . . His gaze fled from everything and fastened on the emptiness” (47). Klara, a friend, is “lost to a kind of emptiness” and “Her gaze drifted somewhere far, far beyond the wall” (96). Adolfina compares herself to Venus de Milo: “I lacked something inside me, as if the arms of my soul were lacking, and that absence, that lack, that feeling of emptiness, made me helpless” (99). Her mother “looked with an absent gaze” (232). Another friend’s gaze “was fixed on a point, as if there, where her eyes looked, something immobile swallowed her gaze, swallowed her very self” (194). Yet another “looked into the emptiness . . . everywhere in that absence around her” (213). The constant repetition of “absence” and “emptiness” and fixed gazes is tedious. It’s not surprising that Albrecht Durer’s engraving, Melancholia, receives a two-page description.
Much is left unexplained. For example, Adolfina does not attend school: “On the day I was to set off to school for the first time, I begged my parents to allow me to stay at home. I stayed home the next day as well, and the days that followed” (39). Her education comes from Sigmund: “he took out one of his textbooks and leafed through the pages, telling me what he thought I needed to know” (39). There is no reference to her learning to read, but she reads Plato, Hegel and Schopenhauer (63)! There also seems to be a lot of purposeless name-dropping. Adolfina becomes acquainted with Johann Goethe’s grandson, Gustav Klimt’s family, Franz Kafka’s sister, and Hermann Broch’s mother!
The portrayal of Sigmund Freud is not flattering. Everyone kowtows to him. His mother, believing her son will be a “great man,” calls him “’my golden Siggie’” (38). When Freud’s grandson is seriously ill, “it was clear to us that he was not going to live long” (224), his health is largely ignored because Sigmund had surgery : “no one asked him how he was doing . . . every day we forgot to take his temperature . . . We were all thinking about Sigmund” (225). When his doting mother is dying, Sigmund ignores her requests that he visit her (233). He is a misogynist who does not let his daughter study medicine because “Sigmund did not believe that studies were for girls” (245). His arrogance seems to know no bounds; he says, “’And this explanation of mine, that religious belief originates in the search for comfort, will last longer than any religious belief’” (248). Most damning is the fact that Sigmund acquires exit visas for himself, “his wife, their children, and their families, . . . his wife’s sister, two housekeepers, . . . [his] personal doctor and his family . . . [and his]little dog” (10), but not for his four sisters who consequently die in concentration camps.
Much has been made of the lyrical language in the book. My problem with the language is the constant repetition. For example, this sentence appears on p. 167: “A smell of raw, disintegrating flesh, of excrement, of sweat, and, in the middle of this stench, of bodies tossing on the eve of death, and bodies stiffly awaiting it.” This same sentence appears again on pages 175 and 242. And then there are the long sentences: "At that moment, if someone had told us this was our final moment on earth, and that later no trace of us would remain, it would not have pulled us from our rapture, because we believed that what was between us, what made the two of us one, was eternal, and that if our material being were taken from us we would continue where the forces of nature and the laws of decay and transience have no power, and where the human soul is stronger than all the heavenly bodies, because they are condemned one day, millions of years after their creation, to burn out, whereas the soul in which our rapture and yearning were interwoven would last even after not a single particle of dust from all the matter in the universe remained"(106).
There is some useful information in the book. The history of the care of the mentally ill was certainly interesting. Some of the discussions (the nature of mental illness, the roles of the conscious and unconscious, religion) were less so. The discussions about religion are pedantic:
"According to my brother, the cult of Yahweh was spread among the Egyptians by a Midianite shepherd with the same name as the Egyptian leader, Moses. But this one, this second Moses, preached a God who was the complete antithesis of Aton: Yahweh was venerated by the Arab tribe of Midianites as 'an uncanny, bloodthirsty demon who walks by night and shuns the light of day.' Although 'the Egyptian Moses never was in Qades and had never heard the name of Yahweh whereas the Midianite Moses never set foot in Egypt and knew nothing of Aton,' they stayed in memory as one person, because 'the Mosaic religion we know only in its final form as it was fixed by Jewish priests in the time after the Exile about eight hundred years later,' by which time the two men named Moses had already fused into a single person, and Aton and Yahweh into a single God, as different in their essences as day is to night, precisely because He is two gods in one"(184). A summary of Freud’s book, "Moses and Monotheism," belongs in a book purportedly about the life of Freud’s sister?
I read a translation of the original Macedonian text. Perhaps much was lost in translation?