Book Review: “The Masochist” by Katja Peral (@ljubljanalitera @beletrina @Istros_books @EasternRegional)

The Masochist (Beletrina Academy Press, 2018; English edition Istros Books, 2020) by Katja Perat, translated from Slovene to English by Michael Biggins

The Masochist, written by Slovenian poet and essayist Katja Perat and translated into English by Michael Biggins, is recommended to our readers by Ljubljana UNESCO City of Literature.

A graduate of Philosophy and Comparative Literature, Perat is recognised as one of the leading poetic voices of her generation in Slovenia. Her debut novel, The Masochist displays the sort of brilliant yet somehow raw ambition that is at once compelling and demanding.

Compelling, because the first-person narrator Nadezhda is an honest and forthright character calling for immediate and undivided attention to her complex and often self-contradictory life.

Nadezhda is supposedly a “wild child” abandoned in a winter forest in 1874 and later found and adopted by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian writer whom history would remember as the original and most famous masochist.

As we follow Nadezhda’s journey of self-discovery – or rather, one of self-administered psychoanalysis of “who she has learned she truly is” as compared to “what she thinks she truly wants to be” – we get a glimpse of the early-20th century upper-class Vienna that was known for luminaries such as Gustav Klimt and his models Adele Bloch-Bauer and Emilie Flöge, Sigmund Freud, Gastav and Alina Mahler, Theodor Herzl, Rainer Maria Rilke, and even James Joyce.

While Nadezhda deconstructs our long-stereotyped perceptions of these historical figures, she also manages to challenge a series of deep-rooted “rules” of female thoughts and behaviours that have long been imposed by both men and women. Interestingly, it is Nadezhda’s observation of her self-imposed martyrdom under the tyranny of these “rules” that reminds her the most of her adopted father.

As a result, in her disappointing marriage and disastrous extramarital affair, Nadezhda recognises and embraces the fact that she is as much a hypocrite as those around her. This gives her peace, as well as freedom from the mysterious loss of her voice – a health crisis that nevertheless allows her to examine her life instead of merely experiencing it.

With that said – and as much as Nadezhda’s narrative is ultimately a rewarding read – The Masochist demands the sort of patient devotion that some readers have cited as a reason why they don’t read translated literature while others thoroughly and unyieldingly enjoys it.

While Biggins’s English translation exhibits a candidness that well reflects Nadezhda’s character – a witty and energetic woman who is not satisfied of being a product of her time and who has worked hard to earn peace with her tumultuous personal development and emotional maturation – it often contains long sentences requiring diligent care to decipher.

It is worth the efforts, though, as in the case of The Masochist the translation assists rather than hinders our understanding of the troubled mind that is Nadezhda. While any individual’s life story cannot and should not be allowed to be easy and entertaining, we are grateful for this opportunity to engage in a faithful exploration of a woman’s heart conditioned as much by her own desire for discipline as for liberation.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “Demanding yet rewarding” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, March 14, 2023, P.16.

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