Natascha Wodin - In a series of fragmented, dreamlike reminiscences scattered throughout the novel, the narrator resurrects her memories of every conceivable horror: her family's flight from famine-torn Ukraine at the end of WW II, her mother's haunting silences and mysterious suicide by drowning...


Natascha Wodin, Once I Lived, Trans. by Ian Galbraith, Serpent's Tail, 1994.


In the form of a letter to her unborn child, a young woman delves into her past. Through her narrative she resurrects spectres that still haunt her life: her mother, who wandered into a river and never returned; her violent, domineering father; and the chaos of post-war Germany. Born in 1945 to Russian parents, she and her family had fled from the famine zone of the war-ravaged Ukraine and ended up in Germany. Always an outsider, the girl's perspective on the tyranny of society and of language, and on the adolescent's desperate need to belong is clear-eyed, moving and unspoiled by self-pity. As the post-war West German economic miracle gains momentum and the culture of America - 1950s nylon blouses and blue jeans - infiltrates her provincial town, her status as an alien becomes increasingly oppressive. A testament to the human ability to survive, Once I Lived is the story of a child's life moved by the forces of the twentieth century. It perfectly captures the essence of the outsider in a country that is becoming increasingly intolerant of aliens.


Conceived as a letter written by a Russian emigre to her unborn chilermany. In a series of fragmented, dreamlike reminiscences scattered throughout the novel, the narrator resurrects her memories of every conceivable horror: her family's flight from famine-torn Ukraine at the end of WW II, her mother's haunting silences and mysterious suicide by drowning, her father's physical and emotional abuse, her subsequent life as a runaway, and her desperate adolescent bid for acceptance in a culture increasingly preoccupied with blue jeans, high heels and the outward trappings of success. Wodin, whose first novel, The Interpreter, was awarded the Hermann Hesse Prize, deftly avoids over-dramatizing her tale. The novel's significant strengths lie in the narrator's remarkable voice, which steadfastedly rejects the easy allure of self-pity and victimization. Her measured assessment of her father's cruelty, the rigidity of Germany's social castes and her eternal status as an alien and a foreigner transcends the melodramatic details to become a dignified, thoughtful meditation on the nature of the outsider and the tyranny of language. - Publishers Weekly


The protagonist of this novel (winner of 1989 Brothers Grimm Prize in Germany) parallels so many aspects of the author's life that it's difficult to escape autobiographical references: The unnamed narrator was born in Russia and transported to Germany in the 1940s, whereas the German-born Wodin spent many years in Russia. The action begins in 1945, the year of Wodin's birth. The adolescent narrator is a prototypical outcast: A Russian, she is relocated to German slums; her mother committed suicide; she spent six years in a Catholic orphanage where her Russian Orthodox training set her apart. Finally, she tells us on page one, there is going to be someone fully her own, a loving and loved child. Then she comes to feel that this ""child of a man who twice raped me"" is merely a foreign body inside her. The premise of this novel is to tell the fetus about her life. A trite concept, but the story is strangely compelling for its first 100 pages. Readers find easy identification with the teenager's loneliness. While sorely lacking dialogue, there are brilliant passages depicting her mother's ""rehearsals"" for death or her father looking through her underwear as he sorts the wash. The aftermath of WW II provides a tumultuous setting that lends credence to the narrator's sometimes petty experience. Suddenly, mid-book, the timing becomes skewed and the adult narrator visits Russia, meeting unknown family members. Returning to Germany, we find she's 16 again, and has run away from home. Exit the intense conflict with her father. Ruminations on postwar Germany lose their concrete focus and give way to long paragraphs of philosophical gibberish. While these narrative detours artfully depict a journey into madness, there are too many rational passages for readers to journey with her. A lyrical, promising, but wholly unsatisfactory effort by a writer whose subsequent work bears watching. - Kirkus Reviews


A testimony to the human spirit's ability to survive, Wodin's forceful novel takes the form of a woman's monologue to a stillborn infant conceived after rape. The woman recalls her childhood, ravaged by World War II and the postwar dislocations of national cultures, families, and individual identities. Personal ghosts haunt her, mercilessly intruding on her grim reminiscences as she recalls fleeing the famine-stricken Ukraine with her Russian parents and settling, with many other refugees, in segregated housing facilities in Germany; losing her mother, who drowned; and enduring her brutally abusive, domineering father, a onetime singer whose obsession with cleanliness and order bespeaks his yearning to adopt Germanic culture despite a disinclination to learn the language. Wodin's dispassionate style, clean of self-pity, keeps us going through the novel's nightmarish landscape and enables us to emerge from this grueling stranger's tale of living in an adopted land with renewed respect for life. -  Whitney Scott


...In fact, the seared and searing emotional core or the book compared well to Natascha Wodin’s masterpiece Einmal Lebt’ Ich, translated into English by Ian Galbraith as Once I Lived, published by Serpent’s Tail and currently tragically out of print. Get yourself a used copy now. Seriously. Wodin’s short but powerful novel, the best book of her absolutely extraordinary literary achievement (I can see at least one more review on this coming up) is a searing hot story of a Soviet immigrant to Germany who struggles to find connection and support in this strange and condescendingly hostile country – all of which isn’t helped by her father’s alienation that has pushed an already cruel man to punish, police and violate his daughter... - shigekuni

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