Smilevski creates a fictionalized version of the life of Freud’s sister in a superb debut.
On the brink of World War II, Sigmund Freud receives permission for a chosen group of family and friends to leave Austria for England. Among those he elects to take with him are his doctor and his dog, but Freud excludes his four sisters and assures them that the situation is only temporary. Elderly and in declining health, Paulina, Rosa, Marie and Adolfina are transported with other Jews to a concentration camp, and eventually, they perish in the gas chambers. Smilevski’s award-winning narrative—he won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2010—is translated from his native Macedonian and gives voice to Adolfina. Six years younger and once close to her brother, she is the product of a distant father and a verbally abusive mother who constantly lashes out at the daughter whom she tells should never have been born. Lacking formal education and remaining a lifelong spinster, Adolfina remains in the background and, from her vantage point, offers keen insight into the Freud family dynamics. Her brother, around whom the family revolves, is a genius whose star soars while Adolfina suffers years of neglect (she is, after all, merely a woman), an ill-fated love affair, confinement in a psychiatric clinic, where silence is a prized commodity for Adolfina and her friend Klara, and the responsibility of caring for her aging mother. Based in part on true events, the book probes numerous aspects of psychoanalytic theory through the characters’ conversations, actions and reflections: the psychosexual development of the individual, the nature of mental illness, the roles of the conscious and the unconscious, and religion. Each falls naturally into the narrative and serves to enhance a balanced, provocative and poignant story.
A sensitive portrayal and a well-crafted debut.