Category Archives: Winkler, Josef

‘When the Time Comes’ by Josef Winkler (GLM X)

In the clay vessel where the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals, to be painted on the horses with a black crow’s feather around the eyes & nostrils and on the belly, to protect them from the mosquitoes and horseflies…

In the clay vessel the bones of nearly everyone who dies in this novel is laid down, one on top of another, layer upon layer and rendered down to a bone-stock, a greasy, viscous liquid called a ‘pandapigl’, in the dialect of Carinthia. At the very bottom of the clay vessel lay the arm bones of a man who had his arms torn from his body during WWII. This man had, before the war, carried a life-sized statue of Jesus and, for some reason, thrown it over a waterfall; the statue had later been reclaimed by the local pastor, Balthasar Kranabeter, except for the arms. The man’s loss of his arms was seen as a just punishment for his wicked act. This man is also portrayed in a large painting, painted by the pastor, framed with fire and in which the sinner is entwined by a large snake whilst Satan pours a cup of gall down his throat. This painting is on the side of a calvary and can be viewed by the inhabitants of the town as a reminder of what awaits the blasphemer.

Image from publisher’s website

The novel begins with an event from WWII and ends with other grisly WWII scenes, such as a soldier whose body is torn in two and the top half of his body is dumped on the top of a dung heap, much to the amusement of his comrades. However, this novel is not about WWII particularly, and although it takes place in an Austrian town, or village, it is not really about that village, but is about death. This plotless novel is a non-chronological catalogue, a necrology, of the many deaths of the inhabitants of the village. Very often a character is introduced with the nature of his or her death. It is confusing at first as we are introduced to many characters, not all of them named, in fact some are just described as Maximilian’s grandmother, Maximilian’s uncle and so on, so we try to work out who’s who in relation to Maximilian, even though initially we know little about Maximilian himself.

The narrative can be confusing but Winkler’s use of repetition is often helpful in aiding our understanding. Sometimes the narrative switches from person to person but it is usually clear(ish) as long as the reader pays attention. I was never quite sure whether Maximilian alone was the ‘bone collector’ or his father, or both; maybe a second reading would be beneficial. Maximilian’s father is repeatedly introduced as ‘the ninety-year old man with the gray-flecked moustache and the trimmed eyebrows’ and it is not until later in the novel that we actually discover that he is called Oswald Kirchheimer—strangely, once we discover his name he becomes a more real person rather than the rather nebulous man with a ‘gray-flecked moustache’, even though we have already heard stories of his childhood, such as how he lost a finger and how he fell from a hayloft, and how he had his face pushed into some excrement by a butcher, who also liked to urinate into his sausage meat.

So many characters, so many deaths—there are deaths from heart-attacks, cancer, pneumonia, traffic accidents, fires etc., but most of all there are suicides. From the beginning we learn of the suicides of Max’s great grandmother and great-grandfather; there is also the suicide of Ludmilla Felfernig, who is taunted by some boys when she has her period and in shame, I guess, she drowns herself in the river. There is a spate of suicides in a family where three brothers end up killing themselves on separate occasions. The suicide of one of these boys, Leopold Hasslacher, is a double suicide with his friend Jonathan Steinhart, which takes up a significant portion of the book. What follows is Winkler’s description of the suicide; there is no explanation of why they did it, all we get is a description of the events. Jonathan and Leopold were seventeen year-old lovers who decided, though we do not know why, to die together.

After Jonathan, wearing only his pajamas, jumped out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night & met with Leopold, who awaited him in the garden, the two went to the stable and put a three-meter-long hemp rope in a bricklayer’s bag splattered with quicklime. On a September night, under the light of the moon, they walked with the rope up the village street, passing the calvary, not noticing the devil’s red wings, which were stretched to the point of tearing—Lucifer was sweating blood—and then up the hill of the parish house into the barn. In the empty barn full of dusty cobwebs—the parish house was unoccupied at the time—they climbed a wooden ladder to the crossbeam. The two boys tied the two ends of rope behind their ears and jumped into the emptiness, weeping and embracing, a few meters from the armless Christ who had once been rescued from a stream bed by the priest and painter of prayer cards and who now stood in the entranceway of the parish house, gasping and smelling the blood sweated out by the devil in the calvary. With their tongues out, their sexes stiff, their semen-flecked pants dripping urine, Jonathan in pajamas and Leopold in his quicklime-splattered bricklayer’s clothes, they hung in the barn of the parish house until they were found by Jonathan’s sixteen-year-old cousin, who shined the beam of his flashlight across their four dangling legs twenty-four hours later, and were cut down with a butcher’s knife by Adam the Third.

The two suicides are afterwards described by the villagers as ‘those two idiots who did away with themselves together’, but Katharina Steinhart, Jonathan’s mother, is particularly haunted by the suicide of her son. From her bedroom window she could look out over the cemetery and, with the aid of some binoculars, see her son’s grave, and dream of his resurrection and return to the family home. She is to die fifteen years later of breast cancer and is buried alongside her son.

With Katharina’s reaction to her son’s death Winkler allows a little bit of sentiment to creep into his book. That most of the book is devoid of it makes it even more effective when it does appear. The overriding effect of the novel is the inevitability of death; but do we need to be reminded of it? Maybe. Maybe we do. And did I say that Winkler has a beautiful prose style?

Two years ago I reviewed Josef Winkler’s Natura Morta for GLM VIII.

When the Time Comes was originally published as Wenn es soweit ist in 1998. This translation, by Adrian West, was first published by Contra Mundum Press in 2013.

When the Time Comes was my first contribution to 2020’s German Literature Month.

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‘Natura Morta’ by Josef Winkler (GLM VIII)

I was trying to avoid Austrian authors for this year’s German Literature Month but here I am with my second Austrian contribution already. Josef Winkler is an author I hadn’t heard of before but when I inadvertently came across his books, whilst trying to decide what to read this year, they piqued my interest, especially this one, Natura Morta: A Roman Novella. It was first published in German in 1998 as Natura morta: Eine römische Novelle. This translation was published in 2014 by Contra Mundum Press and was translated by Adrian West.

‘Natura Morta’ means ‘still life’ in Italian or ‘by death’ in Latin — or at least according to Google Translate — both phrases are relevant to this novella. There is little plot, instead Winkler uses a succession of images or descriptive vignettes of daily life set around a modern-day Roman market-place and Saint Peter’s Square. Winkler concentrates his highly cinematic eye on the mundane, such as advertisements or t-shirt messages, and the muckier aspects of life, such as filthy fingernails or offal discarded in the street. Instead of a plot we get recurring images and characters that help give the work some structure. The book is split into six parts with the first centering around a market-place. Winkler depicts the scenes in close-up, concentrating on specific details: we see gypsy girls selling underwear, people carrying meat in plastic shopping bags, butchers butchering sheeps’ heads, the dirty fingernails of fishmongers etc. Here are a couple of examples from the first part:

A black-veiled nun, holding plastic bags full of cucumbers, apricots, and onions in one hand and pressing two tall blonde Barbie dolls wrapped in plastic to her breast with the other, stopped before the tomato vendor, whose vegetable knife hung from a lanyard around his neck, laid the dolls on a wooden crate, and asked for a few kilos of tomatoes on the vine.

Another gypsy girl — two gold upper teeth shone in the void of her harelip — lifted her right breast slightly and placed her nipple in the mouth of her child, whose eyelids were sealed shut with pus.

One of the characters we are introduced to is Piccoletto, a sixteen-year-old son of a fig vendor, who works at the Damino fish-stand in the market-place. Whenever Piccoletto appears in the narrative it is mentioned that he has ‘long black eyelashes nearly grazing his cheeks’.

The second part takes place in Saint Peter’s Square. Piccoletto is sitting around watching the girls nearby whilst we, via the narrator, watch him closely, intimately, concentrating on the spittle on his lips as he drinks some water or on his testicles seen through the leg-hole of his shorts. There are people selling plastic Jesuses, tourists, children, policemen all passing in front of Winkler’s lens. Here’s a description of a man from this section.

A little humpbacked man with a waxen face, his cadaverous skin covered in black blotches, crossed himself and kissed the black fingertips of his emaciated hand, while a group of nodding bishops dressed in red, wiping the sweat from their chins with kerchiefs embroidered with yellow mitres, walked past him through Saint Peter’s Square. His eyelids and eyelashes were painted black with mascara, his eyes were yellowish and blood-spotted, his sparse hair was dyed black, his moustache flecked with gray. Wheezing, he pulled his mouth open and closed and grasped his throat with a hand covered in golden rings.

Although we have this onslaught of descriptive text, little plot developments do begin to occur, and they are sometimes a bit sinister. A ten-year-old girl had been ogling Piccoletto’s testicles earlier on this section and at the end we are told that he leaves the square accompanied by the girl; we have no idea who she is or whether they are related or know each other or where her parents are.

N.b. I reveal in this paragraph a significant detail of one of the characters. if you don’t wish to find out then you may wish to skip to the next paragraph.
The narrative returns to the market-place and the images of butchered meat, offal, gypsy-girls selling underwear, babies with pus-encrusted eyes, neo-Nazis, Moroccan rent boys, nuns with Barbie dolls, rotting fish. Unexpectedly Piccoletto gets hit by a fire-engine and dies, his distraught employer brings his body into the shop, whilst Winkler’s descriptions of the event is merged in with the continuing descriptions of other events; Piccoletto’s body is described in the same, meticulous, dispassionate manner as the meat that was being butchered and sold. The recurring description of Piccoletto’s eyelashes continues, only now they are those of a dead boy:

The long, damp eyelash hairs of his open left eye grazed his eyebrow, the long, blood-caked eyelash hairs of his closed right eye grazed his freckle-dotted cheek.

This short novella will not be to everyone’s taste; the squeamish may wish to avoid it, as will die-hard fans of plot-driven novels, but if you liked the quotes above and like the sound of a novella with descriptive prose and a cinematic feel then you might enjoy this book. Contra Mundum Press have also published When the Time Comes and Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, both of which sound like interesting reads.

This is my third contribution to German Literature Month VIII.

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Filed under Fiction, Winkler, Josef