ONCE I LIVED by Natascha Wodin


Email this review


The protagonist of this novel (winner of 1989 Brothers Grimm Prize in Germany) parallels so many aspects of the author's life that it's difficult to escape autobiographical references: The unnamed narrator was born in Russia and transported to Germany in the 1940s, whereas the German-born Wodin spent many years in Russia. The action begins in 1945, the year of Wodin's birth. The adolescent narrator is a prototypical outcast: A Russian, she is relocated to German slums; her mother committed suicide; she spent six years in a Catholic orphanage where her Russian Orthodox training set her apart. Finally, she tells us on page one, there is going to be someone fully her own, a loving and loved child. Then she comes to feel that this ""child of a man who twice raped me"" is merely a foreign body inside her. The premise of this novel is to tell the fetus about her life. A trite concept, but the story is strangely compelling for its first 100 pages. Readers find easy identification with the teenager's loneliness. While sorely lacking dialogue, there are brilliant passages depicting her mother's ""rehearsals"" for death or her father looking through her underwear as he sorts the wash. The aftermath of WW II provides a tumultuous setting that lends credence to the narrator's sometimes petty experience. Suddenly, mid-book, the timing becomes skewed and the adult narrator visits Russia, meeting unknown family members. Returning to Germany, we find she's 16 again, and has run away from home. Exit the intense conflict with her father. Ruminations on postwar Germany lose their concrete focus and give way to long paragraphs of philosophical gibberish. While these narrative detours artfully depict a journey into madness, there are too many rational passages for readers to journey with her. A lyrical, promising, but wholly unsatisfactory effort by a writer whose subsequent work bears watching.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1994
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: High Risk/Serpent's Tail -- dist. by Consortium