Are we allowed to simply invent facts about historical figures? The Macedonian author Goce Smilevski is often forced to wrestle with this question. That’s because Smilevski – born in Skopje in 1975 – is an avid practitioner of what could be deemed speculative realism. His work recalls the maxim credited to the writer Miguel de Unamuno, who believed that Don Quixote and Hamlet are just as real as Cervantes and Shakespeare. Cervantes, Shakespeare: Everyone knows these names – but in Macedonia, Smilevski has also long been a leading light of the literary scene. In 2002, his book “Conversation with Spinoza” (German translation published in 2016) won an award for the best novel of the year. He achieved renown beyond his own country in 2010, when his novel “Sigmund Freud’s Sister” (German translation published in 2013) won the European Union Prize for Literature. Both novels show Smilevski’s uncanny ability to conjure up something out of nothing. The author, who studied literature and cultural studies in Budapest, Prague and Skopje, wrote two additional novels that have yet to be translated into German from the Macedonian. We don’t know much about Baruch de Spinoza, the main character in “Conversation with Spinoza,” except that he lived from 1632 to 1677 and was excommunicated from the Jewish community. In this regard, it seems that we can equate Spinoza with his magnum opus “Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order.” “Seems” is the key word here, if we follow the theory suggested by the French philosopher Deleuze, who was convinced that Spinoza actually wrote “Ethics” twice because of his split personality: The passions that he declared null and void in this aloof altar to rationality would later come to haunt the rationality of “Ethics” like a second shadow. Smilevski makes this contradiction in Spinoza’s character both the starting point and subject of his text. Over the course of the novel, Spinoza speaks to the reader twice: First as a man who is succumbed by rationality, and later as a man who gives an account of the personal privations that have made him the only thing that he is – that is, an unflappable thinker. Smilevski deconstructs this image of Spinoza in his novel, transforming the thinker into a character only able to argue about the absence of passion because he had already experienced it to the fullest extent possible. In this regard, “Conversation with Spinoza” could be a considered a reflection upon the underlying relationship between feeling and thinking that approaches an ethos in which rationality cannot be the only distinguishing feature. Whereas “Conversation with Spinoza” unites literature and philosophy, “Sigmund Freud’s Sister” unites literature with psychology. The novel centers on Freud’s younger sister Adolfine; the historical record provides very little evidence of her life. Once again, Smilevski makes a virtue out of necessity by using speculation, invention and suggestion – an approach not without its risks. The novel begins in 1938. Germany has already annexed Austria, and it is the beginning of the end. Freud packs his bags, travelling to London, where exile awaits, with kith and kin, even taking along his private doctor and dog. He leaves his sisters behind, however, leaving them off of the emigration list; a few years later they will be deported and killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. This opening scene is followed by a look back at the family’s origins, from which it broadens its perspective, introducing prominent characters who embody the age and its Zeitgeist, such as Gustav Klimt, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Nerval. Smilevski’s story is told from the perspective of the women who are all overshadowed by these larger-than-life men. In the novel, the women’s suffering is juxtaposed with the male luminaries; this examination of the private sphere holds up a harsh mirror to the times, as though the “Fin de Siècle” were dipped in a corrosive acid bath: Indeed, the plot unfolds for the most part in places that are non-entities – in asylums, hospitals, and concentration camps. That is where Adolfine meets other well-known female contemporaries: Ottla, Kafka’s sister; Johanna Broch, Hermann Broch’s mother; and Mia Kraus, Karl Kraus’s sister. In other words: The possible liberation promised by the shift from a Christian/religious mode of thought to one considered scientific and rational is withheld from women; indeed, as society becomes more modern, it excludes a vast swath of that very same society. Emancipation and repression seem to go hand in hand. Almost half of the novel focuses on insanity born from pain and suffering. Just as in insanity, the strands of the plot’s continually disintegrate. The reader is confronted with a text ridden with gaps and cracks, which seems almost frayed at the edges from the intermittent reflections, quotations and aphorisms. Added to the mix is a carnivalesque intermezzo in the vein of Bakhtin, which Smilevski deploys to stage a debate – at turns erudite, sometimes frivolous – on the value of psychoanalysis. The entire structure is held together by the motif of repetition – as well as by the hypnotic language of the empathetic narrator Smilevski, a master at imbuing individual scenes with meaning. In the end, Smilevski shows his true colors as a European author, one whose stories “are fueled by the major philosophical movements that revolutionized Europe and the world. Smilevski task is to take these theories and their museumified, mummified protagonists and connect them with the biographies of their day to open them up to the present,” explains the literary critic Insa Wilke. Her take is shared by the writer Joshua Cohen, who believes that Smilevski is one of the few living European writers who has a message for the Europe of the future; according to Cohen, Smilevski advocates for more ethics and feelings, and for going back to the roots of the European project. Smilevski is fully devoted to this Europe, which the philosopher Edmund Husserl defined in his 1935 text “Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man” not as a territorial, but a spiritual identity. Following the logic of his role model Husserl, Smilevski latest project will explore this notion of Europe, which is now under siege.
Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Amy Pradell
Photo: Galya Yotova