Freud's Sister

Goce Smilevski

Illustration by Hong-An Tran

Once, Dr. Goethe came up with the idea that we should hold a grand carnival at the Nest. The carnival was going to brighten us up, and visitors would contribute money to the hospital. We spent weeks preparing for the great event. The only ones excluded were the violent, the manic, the nymphomaniacs, and those lying motionless in their beds.

"But why can't I take part in the carnival?" Augustina protested, licking her lips.

"Because we have decided that nymphomaniacs will remain locked in their rooms during the carnival," said Dr. Goethe.

"That is not fair," Augustina grumbled. "Not fair."

We lived those weeks for the carnival; we waited for it, not the way you do an event lasting a single evening, but as though for each of us it would begin a new existence. The doctors allowed us to decide for ourselves what kinds of costumes we would wear, and we sewed them together. We spoke about the costumes, and we sewed them as if we were making ourselves new bodies.

"There," said Karl, stroking the large hat he had just completed. "I will regain my kingdom once again." Karl, who believed he was Napoleon.

Everyone selected clothing according to his imagined, or desired, existence. For those who believed they were someone or something the external world did not recognize—such as Thomas, who, in addition to scant clothing, had requested that he be allowed to carry a large cross on his back; or Ulrike, who requested real diamonds for her diadem; or Joachim, who insisted on Werther's yellow trousers and blue overcoat—their clothes were the beginning of full acknowledgment of an existence that, in some fashion, they had already attained in their unreality. Others, who wanted not to be something else in this world but to be what they were in some other world, constructed clothing to protect themselves here in this world. They made armor, or fashioned wire into chain mail that resembled cages. They prepared costumes that they needed in order to help them defeat this world, costumes that transformed them into dangerous animals or creatures from some bestiary. They made clothes that would enable them to escape this world, they made wings, so that they could fly away, or they sewed clothing that was not clothing but a fabric that covered a moving wall, a box, a stone.

Every day I went to the room where the costumes were being readied. One day, while I was watching the others measuring, cutting, sewing, Dr. Goethe asked me, "Why haven't you begun to get ready for the carnival?"

"I simply don't know what to dress up as," I told him.

"Ah," said Dr. Goethe. "The carnival is not about dressing up but about transformation. The question is not What do I want to dress up as? but What do I want to be transformed into? What do I want to become, so as to be not what I do not want to be but what I am? That is the question."

"What do I want to become," I said, not as if asking a question but as if saying, I do not want to become anything. "I do not want to become anything," I said.

"But at one time, surely, you wanted to become something, something that you were not at that moment," said Dr. Goethe.

Then I saw a long piece of fabric that had been tossed aside. I rolled it up and placed it by my left breast, cradling it in my arms the way one holds a nursing baby.

"All right," I said. "I will be a mother. At the carnival."



The whole city had been invited to the carnival at the Nest, and the spacious grounds were too small to accommodate all who wanted to come.

"All the tickets have been sold," said Dr. Goethe, rubbing his hands in satisfaction a week before the event. "Your brothers are also coming," he added, turning first to Klara  then to me.

"Let them come," said Klara. "I will stay in my room that night."

On the night of the carnival, the grounds of the Nest were overflowing. The crowd had gathered in a circle around the central area and was pushing to see the people in feathered costumes, people with clown hats and large fish tails, people with clothes steeped in color, red as blood, people with the wings of angels and butterflies and birds, people hidden in large eggs with openings for their eyes, people under long blue sheets representing a river, people with trumpets announcing the apocalypse, people who rolled around on a red sheet and burned in the eternal fire, people who lay on a blue sheet and enjoyed heavenly peace, and one man with a cross on his back, who looked up toward the darkness and called out, "Lord, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?" Everywhere there were lanterns, torches, and several large fires whose flames rose up toward the dark sky. My eyes searched for my brother but could not find him. Someone tugged my sleeve. I turned. It was Gustav.

"Klara is in the room," I told him.

"I will visit her later," said Gustav. "Right now I need to finish some very important business," and he winked at me, then set off toward the bushes at the edge of the park with a young woman he surely had met in the crowd.

I continued to search the crowd for my brother. When I had given up and headed toward the tables placed by the entrance to the hospital building, where several nurses sold drinks and food, I saw Sigmund setting down an empty glass, handing over money, and taking a full glass. I went over to him.

"I see you are enjoying yourself," I said.

He smiled.

"Would you like some schnapps?" he asked, pointing to his glass.

"Alcohol is permitted to the guests, not to us."

"I can get some for myself, but you can drink it."

"You know I don't drink."

"I don't drink, either," he said. "I do not know why now . . ."

We climbed the stairs at the entrance to the hospital building, and from there we had a good look at what was happening in the central area of the grounds. Scores of people were riding atop an enormous fish made from pillows sewn together and calling out, "We are flying! Flyyyyiinnnng!" In one spot, an old woman held up a small glass slipper and asked, "Now where is the prince to see that this slipper fits as if cast for my little foot?" In another spot, entranced, an old woman and an old man with enormous butterfly wings were stamping now on one leg, now on the other.

"This is like the theater," said my brother.

"Or the circus," I said.

"Yes. Like in the Middle Ages. When the municipal leaders gathered the city's mad people together in the square, and the crowd turned them into something like a circus performance. And then they were driven out of the city, the fortified gates closing behind them."

"I think the majority of people here would have nothing against being driven from the Nest after the carnival. The only ones left would be me, Klara, and a few others."

"Which proves this is not the place you."

"Or that it is the only place for us," I said. "But why did you come like this?"

"Like what?"

"Without a mask. You see that even the visitors have come in costumes."

"Only some of them."

"But you need to change your clothes."

"You know I do not like such things," he said.

"You do not like alcohol, either, but still you are drinking this evening."

He went down the stairs and over to the tables, paid, and handed the empty glass to one of the nurses, who filled it up again.

"Come," I said, "Come and change." And I led him right up to the entrance to the hospital building. I told the guards that my brother had to change, and they let us inside.

We went to the Great Hall, where costumes we had borrowed from the Burgtheater were scattered about, unused, because everyone had wanted to devise his own.

"Here," I said. "This is for you."

"You know I never like to appear foolish," said my brother, holding the costume in his hands.

"I know," I said. "That is exactly why I am changing you into a fool. For one night at least you can give up your mask of seriousness."

"It's too late. It has long since fused with my face."

"Come," I said. "Get dressed." And I turned to the wall so that I would not see Dr. Freud in his underwear.

After a short time, he said, "I'm ready."

I turned around and had to laugh. The rose-colored pants fit his legs tightly, the shirt was a wild array of colors, and above that serious face with a beard and glasses rose a cap with two orange-colored points topped with green pompons.

"I really am a fool, aren't I?"

I did not answer; I only laughed.

"What about you? You haven't changed either!"

"For me it's easy," I said. I took a shirt from the scattered clothes, rolled it up, and tucked it under my dress and over my stomach. I placed my hands on my dress, supporting the rumpled shirt, and said, "So now we are both what we need to be."

My brother looked at my hands and how they held my belly.

"And now," I told him, "I will show you the common rooms. This room here, which today is serving as our changing room, is the Great Hall, where Dr. Goethe sometimes lectures. He explains madness to us. He thinks this will help us understand ourselves."

"Does he continue to use the word madness?"

"Yes. He says it is better, and he is right."

"But medical ethics has been searching a long time for different terminology."

"Dr. Goethe says that if he calls madness psychosis, if we mad people are called patients, if a madhouse is called a psychiatric clinic, if he terms our madness and foolishness symptoms, then a distance is created between us and him. I do not know why he must not have distance, but it is nice for us. When one of us is angry at Dr. Goethe, he can even shout at him, insult him, and Dr. Goethe does not punish us for that. We are like his friends."

"You do not need to be friends. There has to be distance. That is one of the foundations of the doctor–patient relationship; it is a precondition for healing."

"But who said anything about healing? After all, no one here is sick; everyone here simply lives in his own world." I straightened the glasses on his nose, which had turned a bit red from the alcohol. "Come so I can show you the other rooms," I said, and we left the hall and hurried along the corridor. "This is the library. You see, it is small, but it has lovely books, and there are enough even for those who will stay here for the rest of their lives." Then we set off back down the corridor, and we reached the dining hall. "This is where we eat." Then I took him to the workrooms, to the one in which objects were made of wood, and to the sewing room, the weaving room, and the room where we embroider and knit. "Klara and I taught Dr. Goethe how to knit."

"And does he?"

"Sometimes."

I took him to the last room that I wanted to show him.

"And here is where people die," I told him, cracking open the door. My brother knew what he would see inside, and he did not want to enter. "Please, come in, you are welcome here." I entered first, and he followed. There, as always, it smelled of death, of raw, disintegrating flesh, of excrement, of sweat, and, in the middle of that stench, of bodies tossing on the eve of death, and bodies stiffly awaiting it. Several of the dying, laid out on mattresses on the floor, agonized with yet one more breath. "In life everyone is different, while in death everyone is different and everyone is the same. Everyone lets go of his spirit by exhaling, but each exhales in his own way."

"A little water . . . a little water," begged an old man dying on a mat under the window. The on-duty nurse was handing out drinks at the carnival, and there was no one to give water to the dying.

I took my hands from the bundled shirt I was holding against my stomach under my dress so that I could take the bottle of water from the table, and I poured several drops into the pleading mouth. The old man thanked me. As I was returning the bottle to the table, the shirt, no longer supported, slipped from under my dress and fell to the floor. I bent down, picked it up, bundled it up again, and placed it by my left breast, cradling it in my arms the way one holds a nursing baby. My brother watched me.

"Let's go," I said, and we exited the room that smelled of death.

We went out of the hospital, stood at the top of the entrance stairs, and looked toward the grounds, where the guests and residents of the Nest had become intermingled. They danced, they sang, they created quite a commotion, chasing one another, conversing, or arguing.

"Sometimes I recall those words of yours," my brother said.

"Which words?"

"That beauty is comfort in this world."

"Look how much beauty there is around us. Which means how much comfort. And that, in turn, means how much pain, because comfort always appears for a reason."

"Yes," my brother said, "how much beauty."

We went down the stairs and walked over to the tables. My brother was already drunk—his face was red, his movements quicker than usual, and he spoke with the warmth in his voice that he had had when he was a young man, and I a child.

"I have had enough to drink," he said, and paid them to refill his empty glass. Then we moved away from the tables where they were serving drinks. "I think of you often," he said.

"Often," I repeated.

"And do you also think . . ."

"Of what?"

"Of the world outside here . . ."

"No," I said. "Ever since I got here, it is as if nothing outside these walls exists."

He took a sip, his hand or his mouth trembled, and the rest of his drink spilled to the ground.

"Yet another reason for yet another glass," he said, and he set off back toward the tables. On his way there, he stumbled. I wanted to go to him, but as he straightened up he signaled to me to stay and wait for him. He paid, they poured him a drink, and he came back to me.

"I promise this is my last glass," he said. I smiled. "Yes," he continued. "There are so many things I want to tell you, but I do not know whether you want to hear them, and I do not know whether there is a reason to tell you. . . ."

"What things?"

"About our mother, about me and Martha, about the children, about Minna. About our sisters. About the city. About everything . . . You have been here for years. . . . There are so many things I want to tell you, but I do not know whether you want to hear them, and I do not know whether there is a reason to tell you. . . ." He spoke with his eyes fixed on the ground. Then he looked me in the eyes. "Do you have anything you want to tell me?"

"I do not know whether you want me to tell you something. I do not know what you want me to tell you."

"Everything," he said.

"Everything," I repeated. "But what I have to tell somehow does not exist in words. It exists only in images, and even those are merging one into another.

We said nothing.

"Does something hurt you?" he asked. I had heard his voice tremble only a few times in my life.

"What should be hurting me?"

"Something from the past."

"No," I said. "It is as if nothing ever was before. As if life began the moment I got here. Or ended at that moment."

He raised the glass of schnapps to his mouth, but rather than putting it to his lips he brought his index finger to his teeth and bit it. Then he drank the schnapps. The glass fell to the ground. His whole body was shaking. He took my hand in his hands and kissed my palm. Then he hugged me, pressing my head to his chest with his hands, and he said, "O my sister . . . O my sister . . ." as if by stating our kinship he was stating my whole fate, everything he knew and everything he did not know, and he cried between each utterance of our relationship; he lamented what was expressed in that utterance, "O my sister." He kissed me on the forehead. I remembered how in our childhood he would kiss me on the forehead secretly somehow, when our mother was not around, because she scoffed at such tenderness. It seemed to me that I was not breathing, it seemed to me that I did not feel anything, only the touch of his lips on the crown of my head, the warmth of his breath that smelled of alcohol, and the firmness of his hands pressing my head to his chest.

translated from the Macedonian by Christina E. Kramer


Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from FREUD'S SISTER by Goce Smilevski.

Copyright © 2011 by Goce Smilevski
Translation copyright © 2012 by Christina E. Kramer

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Read the original in Macedonian

Read translator’s note

Goce Smilevski was born in 1975 in Skopje, Macedonia. He was educated at the Charles University in Prague, at Central European University in Budapest and at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, where he now works at the Institute for Literature. He is the author of the novels Conversation with Spinoza and Sigmund Freud's Sister. His works are translated into English, Serbian, German, Slovenian, Polish and Croatian.

Christina E. Kramer is an Editor-at-large at Asymptote. She is also a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. She has published articles on various aspects of Balkan linguistics. In addition to Freud's Sister, she has translated My Father's Books and The Time of the Goats by Luan Starova and was also a member of the group of translators of the nineteenth century Bulgarian classic Bai Ganyo by Aleko Konstantinov. Further information can be found on her website here.




Goce Smilevski's novel is narrated by Adolfina Freud, the sister of Sigmund. In finding her voice, Smilevski has fashioned a style whose long, complex sentences and lexical repertoire expand the possibilities of literary Macedonian. The modern Macedonian language was not codified and standardized until the middle of the twentieth century. Although it partakes of a literary history dating back to the middle ages, this modern language, and its literature, are young. In addition to exploiting Macedonian's relatively flexible word order (as compared to English), Smilevksi has also been resourceful in his borrowings, coinages, and use of dialect words. This syntactic complexity and lexical richness provide both the challenge, and the standard, for my translation. Adolfina's memory circles back through repeated images, glimpses of color, shadows. The excerpt chosen depicts the complex relationships between brothers and sisters, men and women, doctors and patients, those inside the asylum, and those outside, masked and unmasked.


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