Selections from Graveyard of Bitter Oranges: The Dead Children
December 30, 2013 | by Josef Winkler
This week, we will be running a series of excerpts from Josef Winkler’s Graveyard of Bitter Oranges. Inspired by the author’s stay in Italy after leaving his native Carinthia, the novel was first published in 1990 by Suhrkamp Verlag and its English translation will be published by Contra Mundum Press in 2015.
In the wine cellar, the ash from the volcano disgorged the wine from the bottles and barrels and filled them back to the brim. In the tombs, it displaced the ashes of the dead, settling down their place. The mouth, eye sockets, and skulls were filled by the rain of ashes from the volcano. A stream of lava, fifty meters wide and two meters deep, descended the slope of Mount Etna at seventy meters per minute. The lava flooded the stone houses as well, where pious images were hung, and flowed over the black crosses on the roadsides commemorating murders that had taken place. At night, the ash fell over the neighboring villages and the next day, the air was dull brown. Monks wore on their breasts the image of an erupting volcano, and stopped before each window, waiting until they’d received alms for the homeless. Boys ran through the shadowy side streets with lanterns on sticks, looking for cigarette butts that smelled of the fires of Purgatory. Street urchins hurled oranges and lemons at a train covered in with a film of hot ashes. Peasants leaned sacred images against the still-undamaged trees to stanch the searing flow of the lava. A tourist led an ass to the summit of Mount Etna to hurl it into the lava’s dreadful deluge. As it fell, the animal let out horrible cries before it burst into flames and blackened like a thicket of broom. The tour guide cooked the tourists fresh hen eggs in the scorching cinders from the volcano. English tourists pressed coins bearing the head of the queen into the hot lava, cleaned off the bits of lava that clung to the molten matter, and took them back home as souvenirs.
Against which wall of the farmhouse did they lean the large black lid and the two small white lids of the coffins? In an old house in ruins, in a pile of magazines, I once again found wedged in a copy of Bunte Illustrierte a photo essay that I had torn out as a child and kept for years in the drawer of my night table. In one of the photographs, an old woman dressed in black, with white gauze cradling her chin and a rosary threaded through her hands joined in prayer, had been placed in a black coffin. To her left and right, in two smaller white coffins, were two children, their hands joined together and interlaced with rosaries, and their jaws likewise held shut by a white cloth tied around their heads. In front of the three coffins, at the old woman’s feet, a small family altar had been raised. To the left and right of a cross on a pedestal, to which a white Christ was nailed, two votive candles burned. On the catafalque that held up the coffins, comprising two tables pushed together and covered with a white cloth that hung down in copious folds, sprays of periwinkle had been affixed with pushpins. Johann Pignet, a farmer from Dreulach in the Gail Valley in Carinthia, was returning home from a funeral with his wife Maria when he was met in his yard by a group of onlookers that had been waiting for him. “What’s going on? What’s happened?” the farmer shouted, then mounted the steps to the hayloft, entered the granary, which was more than half-full of fresh corn, grasped the bodies of his four-year-old son Hermann, his eight-year-old son Wilhelm, and their grandmother, carried them out of the granary and into the yard with the help of his brother-in-law Johann Mörtl, and tried to resuscitate them. The two children and the grandmother had choked to death on the toxic fumes in the granary. Standing before the corpses of his two children and his mother, the farmer Johann Pignet shouted in tears: If I hadn’t gone to that funeral, none of this would have happened, I always kept the boys close by me, but out on the cornfield, I had two cartloads left to fill, and then this burial came up! Hardly had Johann Pignet left his farm, in the company of his wife Maria, to attend the burial of an acquaintance, when Hermann, his little boy, had said to his siblings: I’ve got an idea, let’s go up to the granary and trample the corn! Hermann climbed up to the high edge of the granary and jumped down onto the fresh, fuming corn, lurched after a few seconds, intoxicated by the gas in the granary, hit his head against the cement wall and collapsed. His little sister Elisabeth began screaming and went for the help of their handicapped grandmother, who sent the girl to her uncle on the neighboring farm. In the meanwhile, Wilhelm, the oldest child, had jumped into the granary to help his brother. When the grandmother had climbed with her crutch up the steps of the hayloft and saw the two boys laid out unconscious in the granary, she entered in turn, hoping to pull the two boys out. Little Hermann, whom she wanted to save first, had his arms around the neck of his grandmother, who was laid out on her stomach. The three bodies lay exposed in the main room of the farmhouse: the grandmother in the middle, the eight-year-old Wilhelm to her left, and the four-year-old Hermann to her right. Over the body of the old woman they had stretched a translucent black funeral shroud, and over the bodies of the two boys, a white sheet, also translucent. Two years before the Pignet family lost their sons Hermann and Wilhelm, both of whom choked to death on gases in the granary, their son Leopold had died of leukemia. A year later, a reckless driver killed their son Andreas.
The parents would tie a rope around the naked corpse of their child and lower it down into the mass grave, among the hundreds of cadavers and skeletons rotting there below. In Naples, if the deceased were poor, they were brought to the Campo Santo della Pietà, a cemetery bereft of any sort of ornamentation, composed of 365 numbered pits in which, according to the date, the dead who arrived that day were buried, without coffins and completely nude. On the first of January the following year, the mass grave marked with gravestone number 1 was opened back up, and the newly dead were scattered over the decomposing corpses and skeletons from the first of January of the preceding year. Naked children and old people were piled one atop the other. Instead of a few fistfuls of earth, quicklime was shoveled over the dead. In Naples, beggars sold the clothing that had been stripped from the deceased in the cemetery. An exposé described it as a dung heap where the daily harvest from the ondachi, the hospitals, and the prisons was strewn. When this means of burial was abolished, an orange grove was planted over the dead and the former Campo Santo della Pietà was rechristened Campo Santo delle Cedrangolette, the graveyard of bitter oranges. Today it is known as Cimitero delle Fontanelle.
From my hotel room in Palermo, which lay across from their house, I had watched, for days on end, three girls take off their clothes and slip naked under the cover of their bed at the exact same hour every night; but one day, in the late afternoon, when I had returned to my hotel, excited once again to see the girls taking off their clothes, I approached the window and looked at the house across the way, and in the lit bedroom, I saw the corpse of one of the three girls, with a rosary in her joined hands and a wreath of flowers around her head, stretched out on her large bed. Smoking candles burned all around her. Lying down in my own bed, looking out the window, until early morning, when I fell asleep, I contemplated the dead girl’s half-bare and already yellowed feet.
Sunbathers smelling of tanning lotion on Nettuno beach, seeing that a Japanese man had drowned not far from where they lay, walked over and stood around the body. A young woman, who had covered her breasts with a T-short that read Bravo Benetton! in large letters, walked back and forth in curiosity before the corpse, her tanned buttocks shifting. Fully dressed teenagers arrived, dropped their motorcycle helmets in the sand, sat down over their skull-like helmets and began to talk, some cordially, others snickering at the dead body. After a while, they picked up their skull-like helmets and disappeared, but then others came, mostly people twenty-five to thirty years of age. What happened? How did this happen? After more than an hour, a doctor showed up and covered the upper half of the cadaver. Immediately a number of gawkers appeared, but the police, with the help of the man who rented parasols on that part of the beach, pushed them away. Una salma sulla mira spiaggia! The dead man was lying in his place, for free, beneath a parasol. The man who rented parasols jumped from one foot to the other, turned back and forth from the policemen and the cadaver, and arranged to have barrier of boards erected, so that no one but him could see the dead body, whose wounds and face he stared at eagerly while the doctor determined the cause of death, wrote out the death certificate, and afterward, feeling relieved, stretched himself out over a beach chair to catch his breath, before commencing to chat good-humoredly. Smiling, the doctor shook the hand of the official who arrived from the court. The court official lifted the towel momentarily from the face of the deceased before letting it fall in disgust. Then the undertaker’s lackeys showed up, sporting fashionable bathing suits, carrying a metal coffin. They took off its lid, then unfolded a large sheet of plastic and laid it in the open bottom of the coffin. They pulled back the large beach towel, lifted the corpse up with the sheets it had been lying over on the sand, and let it drop into the coffin. Grasping the coffin by the handles and lifting their legs to avoid slipping in the sand, they walked up the dune toward the hearse—Bravo Benetton!—in their fashionable bathing suits.
Josef Winkler (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of fourteen books and winner of numerous literary honors, among them the 2008 Büchner Prize. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. His novels When the Time Comes and Natura Morta are currently available from Contra Mundum Press, who will also be publishing Graveyard of Bitter Oranges in 2015.
Adrian West is a writer and literary translator whose works has appeared in numerous publications including 3:AM, McSweeney’s, and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. His book-length translations include the novels of Josef Winkler as well as the long poem cycle Alma Venus by Catalan poet Pere Gimferrer.
Anthony Cudahy is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. He is currently an artist-in-residence at Artha in the Brooklyn Navy Yards.
Friedhof der bitteren Orangen. Copyright (c) Josef Winkler, 1990. English translation copyright (c) Adrian West, 2012. Translations published by permission of Contra Mundum Press.