Tag Archives: Contra Mundum

‘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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Filed under Fiction, Winkler, Josef