'Freud's Sister': relationships analyzed

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"Freud's Sister" by Goce Smilevski (Penguin) Photo Credit: AP Photo

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FREUD'S SISTER, by Goce Smilevski, translated from the Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer. Penguin, 266 pp., $16 paper.

Goce Smilevski's "Freud's Sister," winner of the 2010 European Union Prize for literature, imagines the life of Adolfina, one of Sigmund Freud's four sisters who died in concentration camps.

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It begins with a scene in which she begs Freud, who was getting ready to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna and go into exile in London, to get her and the other sisters out of Austria, too, but her desperate plea falls on deaf ears.

Did the founder of psychoanalysis abandon his elderly sisters in real life, too? According to Peter Gay's acclaimed 1988 biography, he did not. Freud gave them a substantial sum of money, and also asked a French princess to see if she could get them out of the country, maybe to Paris. The princess did her best, but failed to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles.

Smilevski's fictitious account of what happened gives the impression the book is a character assassination of Freud, but it certainly is not. Written from the point of view of Adolfina, about whom almost nothing factual is known, it is the poignant story of a woman who lived and died in one of the worst periods of human history.

As a child, she is sickly, and her mother often tells her, "It would have been better if I had not given birth to you." Once grown up, she has a love affair, but it ends in tragedy. When her mother declares her single and childless life "meaningless," she checks into a psychiatric clinic "to escape reality."

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In Smilevski's imagination, Adolfina comes across as an erudite thinker, and her musings about such things as madness, patriarchy, Judaism and Freud's writings are a pleasure to read. There is great depth in this novel, and its poetic prose shines through even in this English translation.

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