Selections from Graveyard of Bitter Oranges: The Blood of Saint Januarius
December 31, 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.
One day I asked my mother how she had found out that her three brothers, eighteen, twenty, and twenty-two years of age, had died in the matter of a year during the Second World War. Adam’s coming home too, but different! my grandmother seems to have said to my then sixteen-year-old mother, who had just returned home from an exam in Home Economics. His body was brought by train from Yugoslavia to Feistritz, where one of the other siblings transported his brother Adam, who was already lying in his coffin, in a horse carriage over the still unpaved road home to Kamering. My mother got word of her second brother’s death as she was climbing a hill, a rake on her shoulder, in the direction of the cemetery, and saw my grandmother standing in prayer in the distance over her brother Adam’s freshly dug grave. The sacristan’s wife, who was also in the cemetery, approached my grandmother and asked her why she was crying. Stefan is gone! my grandmother said. Stefan is gone! my mother heard as she walked, a rake over her shoulder, along the cemetery wall. She was informed of the death of her third brother by the mail carrier at the time, who herself lost her only son, more than ten years back, on Golan Heights. She brought to my mother’s sister, who was resting against the garden fence, a letter that my grandfather had written to his son Hans at the front. Over the envelope was a handwritten message: fallen for greater Germany! According to my mother, my grandfather’s legs shook when he read this note, and his wife, my grandmother, collapsed unconscious at his side.
When we arrived in the early morning to Stazione Centrale in Naples, two ten-year-old orphans, who had spent the night under the stars, were still lying in a field across from the station. At the cross streets were naked children from six to ten years of age, holding buckets of water and squeegees and waiting for the traffic lights to turn red so they could wash the windows of the stopped cars and stretch their filthy hands through the cars’ windows. A woman with one breast exposed, nursing her child in the passenger seat, pressed a hundred-lira coin into a boy’s hand. A vendor was hawking buns on wooden skewers that he carried around in a basket. Over one of the impaled buns was a page of a newspaper in Arabic with the photograph of a dead child. An inflated white balloon covered with characters from Walt Disney came to rest on the ground in a poor neighborhood. In an alley in Naples, a child played a red harmonica imprinted with the word Camorra. From a clothesline hung a towel with the crude outline of a map of Rome. When I saw the fingernails of the barman squeezing out my orange juice, I immediately cringed and asked if he would serve me a mineral water instead. I was afraid that the orange juice would stream over those unsavory looking nails and that, disgusted, I would be incapable of drinking my juice. A Neapolitan coffin vendor: All passengers getting off at the last stop, show your tickets please! On my way to the cathedral where the spectacle of the liquefaction of Saint Januarius’ blood was to take place, I stopped in the courtyard of a building and lifted my camera to eye-height when a man stepped toward me resolutely and said: The museum is up there, up there Michelangelo, not here, capito? In the candy stalls in front of the cathedral they were selling busts of Saint Januarius in various sizes, of glass and marble, but also of sugar and marzipan. In the sugar glass ampoules in the marzipan statues made to resemble reliquary vessels, in place of the blood of Saint Januarius, was a strawberry preserve that melted over the tongues of the children. A priest made an acolyte holding a candle light up the vessel that was said to hold the blood of the patron saint of Naples, waved the ampoule back and forth numerous times, shook his head, and said: It’s still solid! Another priest mounted the pulpit and shouted: “Not only was Saint Januarius surrounded by savage animals, but we are as well! Wherever we are or wherever we go, they roar and gnash their teeth! But we do not see them! you will tell me. Woe unto you if you do not see them! Those animals are the passions in our breasts, which you should exterminate like vermin that eat away at your souls! You should cut off their heads, as they cut off the head of Saint Januarius!” Look, said a young monk, speaking in Neapolitan and holding his head in his hands, I am just a poor man, it matters not whether I live or die, but if the blood of Saint Januarius liquefies here once again, I will cave in my head at your feet this very minute, so long as you promise me to return to the breast of the Mother Church and profess the Catholic faith. San Gennar, screamed the crowd, fa il miracolo! Faci la grazia di far il miracolo! San Gennar, dove sta la tua fede? Dormi o sei morto? As the blood still refused to liquefy, they cried: Sei andato o Mavozzo? Sei crepato santuccio? Maledetto, se non fai il miracolo! When at last the blood liquefied, the archbishop lifted the relic aloft, swung it from one side to the other, and shouted: È fatto! and more than a thousand people applauded. Women and men embraced one another weeping, and the bells sounded in the cathedral, so that the people out in the street would also know the miracle had been wrought once more, and for a year, Naples would be spared from earthquakes, eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, outbreaks of cholera, and other catastrophes. I salute you, venerable blood, that sprang from the rib of Christ and was spilled to purge the sins of the world! Oh blessed blood, bless me! Oh pure blood, purify me! Strong blood, give me strength! A woman, whom the caribinieri refused to let approach the archbishop, who was protected behind a screen, faked an epileptic attack and threw herself onto her back on the floor, flinging saliva all around. The caribinieri watched her calmly and took her under the arms to help her up when she tried to get back to her feet. Another woman grasped the hand that the archbishop held to his breast and kissed it as he walked over the red carpet of the church in the direction of the sacred blood of Saint Januarius. “The relic may be kissed from 4:00 P.M. onwards,” read a sign hanging near the altar steps. A bishop who held the relic—escorted by caribinieri with submachine guns—said to a child who was kissing the silver vessel that contained the ampoules said to hold the blood of the patron saint of Naples: Don’t kiss the silver housing, kiss the glass, that’s where the sacred blood is!
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.