Goce Smilevski: „The translations made Adolfina’s shadow grow”

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interview by Dana Bădulescu
interview by Dana Bădulescu

Goce Smilevski* from the Republic of Macedonia was invited to this edition of The International Literature and Translation Festival in Iași (filit). Dana Bădulescu, our editor form Iași, took the opportunity to make and interview with him. (Fitralit)

Q: What gives you the go-ahead to write a new novel? Is it an image, an anecdote, a statement, a state of mind, a book that you are reading, anything else?

A: It could be any of the the things you mentioned. The only important quality that image, anecdote, statement, idea, has to have is―to become an obsession for me. Writing a novel means spending hours and hours every single day for several years breathing with the characters that live and die in that novel, so if the obsession is not there, they will disappear, they will not stay with me every day for such a long time.

Q: You said that the backstory of Freud’s Sister is that of the persons Sigmund Freud entered in a list he was allowed to make before leaving Vienna for London in 1938. You probably found it shocking, revolting and unfair that Freud would enter the names of his servants, his wife’s sister, the family’s doctor, and even his most beloved dog, but NOT the names of his four sisters, who were deported to concentration camps after he left Vienna. How did you come across Freud’s list and when did you make up your mind to write a novel whose protagonist is Adolfina, the most sensitive and devoted of his sisters?

A: The first impulse for writing the novel was that I realized that there are two connected facts in Freud’s life that biographers always tackle separately. The first fact is that he had a chance to write a list of as many people as he wanted, a list of people that could leave the Nazi-occupied Vienna. The second fact is that his sisters died in the Holocaust. None of his biographers ever connected these two facts. None of them wrote: they died in the Holocaust because their brother did not put them on the list. They would always write that he left them enough money (later confiscated by the Nazis), but they never asked why he didn’t take them with him, as he took, for example, his doctor and doctor’s family, his housemaids, or his wife’s sister? So this avoiding of putting these two facts together was very provoking for me. I think it was Isaiah Berlin who wrote that historiography remembers conquerors, rulers, and men of power, and the influential people and that it neglects the ordinary people that very often participate in the progress of humanity more than these “important” figures. Freud became one of those people important for historiography while he was still in the middle of his life―he conquered (or, at least, tried to) the human unconscious (we have to remember that before him, it was more or less believed that the human being is what s/he thinks s/he is, and he discovered that we are much more what we do not know of ourselves), he influenced our way of thinking forever, and of course, he was very proud of it, writing that he presented humanity with the third of the three historic injuries to its megalomania: Copernicus had established that the earth is not the center of the universe, Darwin―that we did not originate from God’s breath but from animals, and he, Freud, discovered that we are just servants of our unconscious. So, I have decided not to put this “important” figure in the center of my novel. As I have said, because of his discovery that we are more what our unconscious is than what we are as rational beings, for me he is a prophet, but I did not want such a person to be a center of the novel, although it is very provoking for a writer to shed light upon the contradictions of such a person; I did that with him, but having him as a side character. I decided to have at the center of my novel a woman that lived in his shadow. What did she leave behind? The fact that she remained unmarried (that was a horror for a woman in the 19th century), that she took care of her parents until their death and that she was maltreated by her mother. What else remained of her? A few photographs. A few letters to her brother. Freud’s letter to his fiancé (and later wife) Martha, saying that he loves Adolfine most of all of his sisters and that she is the most sensitive of them. And Martin Freud’s few lines on his aunt in his book, which give us an impression that the Freud family underestimated her. That is all we know about her. For me, she is a symbol of the forgotten people.

Q: In The New York Review of Books Joyce Carol Oates argues that Freud’s Sister dares to provide a kind of shadow biography of Freud that is highly critical of the ‘great man.’” How accurate do you think that statement is?

A: Joyce Carol Oates is an author that I have a huge respect for. She referred to my novel on several occasions, and her statements were always somehow ambivalent, one could feel she loves the novel and at the same time as if she desired that in it Freud would be portrayed as an equally great human being as he was a great scientist, which is not the case. He was no doubt an intellectual giant, while as a human being, he was like every one of us, a man that can make mistakes, which sometimes lead to tragic consequences. I remember that in the Spanish edition of Elle, Joyce Carol Oates was asked of a novel that had impressed her in the recent years, and she mentioned Freud’s Sister, saying she was “deeply moved by it”, and then added: “It’s very difficult to forget and it is very likely to be as controversial as it is acclaimed”. As I said, Joyce Carol Oates is a great author, and as a reader, she can have ambivalent feelings toward a novel, when in it one of the characters is a thinker she admires, Sigmund Freud in the case of my novel.

Q: Your novel Freud’s Sister rescues Adolfina from oblivion and gives her a voice which the men of power of her age silenced. In an interview, you said that Adolfina is a metaphor for the people that are forgotten.” The etymology of the Greek word metaphor” is metapherein” (meta-, to transfer + pherein, to carry). Like translation, the metaphor is transportation. Your novel translates Freud’s story into Adolfina’s, transporting us to an era that began with optimism in the middle of the 19th century and ended with the Holocaust in World War II. What kind of a translator is Adolfina? To what extent is your book a translation to start with?

A: Thank you so much for your profound thinking over the word “metaphor”, your explanation and the question reads like a highly essenced essay, so that I remain speechless―it poses so many questions, it opens such a horizon to so many views on reality and fiction, on remembering and forgetting, on truth and its interpretation. But the direct answer to the direct question (“What kind of a translator is Adolfina?”) would be: In Freud’s Sister, she as a character is a translator of the women who became voiceless as they were forgotten by historiography, and who can express their voice in fiction.

Q: Sigmund Freud was one of the men of power whose voice was heard and whose theories became famous, but at the same time he found himself an oppressed Jew when the Nazi regime came to power. In other words, his fame was questionable. Sigmund may have shared a sense of repression and erasure with his sisters. (How) did that translate in your novel?

A: Sigmund Freud felt that feeling of repression since his childhood―as a child he witnessed when his father was humiliated for being a Jew, and he felt deeply ashamed of him and also disappointed that his father didn’t fight back, it was a sign of weakness for him. People that try to analyze and explain Freud’s personality and the reasons of some of his actions, including his constant strive to somehow live beyond belonging to a tradition and to a race, find it related to his insisting that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian, and to other statements referring to Judaism and the Jews elaborated in his last work, Moses and Monotheism. There is no doubt that his sense of repression influenced his relationship with his sisters, and one of the main characteristics of his personality is seen there too―he was a very contradictory person, and he was well aware of it.

Q: Freud’s Sister has been translated into more than 30 languages, so it has started its journey. It is now out of your hands, and Adolfina’s voice is heard worldwide, her shadow has grown as big as her brother’s monument. What does that feel like? Does translation make any difference?

A: As you have beautifully stated―with the translations Adolfina’s shadow (as she was all her life in the shadow of her influential brother) has grown, and her voice (or the fictional re-construction/creation of her voice) can be heard in so many languages. In that sense, I feel the translations make a difference.

Q: You have been one of the filit guest writers this year. Was this your first time in Romania, and if it was, how did it feel as the first encounter with another country in the Balkans?

A: Before arriving at filit I was aware that filit has the reputation that within a few years it has emerged as one of the most important world literary festivals. Being present there, I learned why―it is because of the dedication of the organizers and all the people involved in creating it, and also because of the devotion of the readers of Iasi to literature. I had the opportunity to visit Romania for the first time some five years ago, on the occasion of the publication of my novel. My first encounter with Romanian authors was long before that, in my teenage years, when I read for the first time the works of Emil Cioran and Mircea Eliade. Meanwhile, in the years 2001–2002, while doing post-graduate studies at the Central European University in Budapest, I became friends with many Romanian students who studied there too. At the Central European University, there were students not only from Eastern Europe but from all over the world, and it was clear that the best students in each department are from Romania. I guess the reason for that is the Romanian educational system, but also that enthusiastic eagerness to learn and desire for knowledge that I saw the Romanians had while I was studying with them. I have always been fascinated by every encounter with Romanian culture, authors and readers. Romania certainly is a country in the Balkans, but it also participates in the spirit of Central Europe, and it has the influence of the French culture, maybe that mixture makes it so special.

Q: You have met your readers and critics at FILIT. Did you also meet your translator into Romanian, Octavian Blenchea? (https://www.linkedin.com/in/blenchea/?originalSubdomain=ro) If so, how was the encounter? Even if you haven’t met Blenchea, what do you think of the Romanian version of your novel and of its impact upon Romanian readers?

A: I still haven’t met Mr. Blenchea, but I am looking forward to meeting him in the future, hopefully soon. I cannot judge his translation of my novel, as I don’t read Romanian, but according to the wonderful responses of the readers of Sora lui Freud, Octavian Blenchea did a great job, and I am deeply and truly grateful to him for that!

Q: Is there any message you would give the Romanian readers of your novel? Were you impressed by any perticular question or remark of your Romanian readers?

A: I am impressed by each remark from Romanian readers. They are always thought-provoking and inspiring! My message for them is that I am impressed by their love for reading, and that I hope they will remain in the future as devoted to reading as they are now.


* Goce Smilevski was born in 1975 in Skopje (Macedonia). He was educated at the Charles University in Prague, the Central European University in Budapest, and the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. He is the author of several novels, including Freud’s Sister, which has been translated into more than thirty languages. In Romania it was published by Polirom, translated by Octavian Blenchea. For his works of fiction, Goce Smilevski has won several international awards: the European Union Prize for Literature, the Premio Per la Cultura Mediterranea and the Central European Initiative Award for Literature.

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