Selections from Graveyard of Bitter Oranges: The Torch
January 1, 2014 | 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.
The monk from Assisi, who had removed his upper and lower dentures on Holy Saturday so that his cheeks would look as sunken as the tomb of Jesus after the resurrection, said repeatedly: Don’t give the dogs the gnawed leg bones of the Easter lamb, bury them in the cemetery, do not even think of giving them to the dogs!
At six-thirty in the morning in a café in Stazione Termini in Rome, when I was about to catch the train to Austria, I espied a dwarf who stood as tall as my knees and carried with him a gilded stool, to be able to sit down whenever he wished, and one of the bar patrons ordered him a cappucio. He leaned down to hand it to him, and I turned back and stayed in Rome. I believe the dwarf will be particularly beautiful in heaven, the painter said.
Once again I surprised myself as I thought how much I should have liked it had the boy, whom a passing car had grazed, been run over instead, so that I could lift up his body, still warm and bleeding—the boy’s body and mine, a pietà—and together, already adorned with cross-shaped funeral bouquets, we could have waited for the hearse to arrive.
I opened my chest with a scalpel, extracted my slippery heart, sliced it into shreds so that, with this red rag, as I called it in my dream, I could wipe off my ink-stained fountain pen, which lay atop a poem by Robert Musil: The sister sweetly separates / The sleeper’s sex and swallows it / Leaving in exchange her heart / in the same spot, soft and red.
In the Via dei Condotti, a dwarf, deformed from thalidomide, pushed with her short naked legs a shoebox half full of lira bills. Tourists threw money into the box, passing indifferently all the while before the gypsies loafing about, nursing their children with their breasts exposed. To call the attention of passersby, a beggar banged his cane repeatedly on a sacred image unfolded on the ground where the head of John the Baptist was portrayed.
For three days, in the shop window of a farmacia, the mummy of an Egyptian child was left on display in an old-fashioned cradle. Vera mummia! read the piece of paper pasted to the crib.
If you can’t hide, I’ll kill you! I said to a rainbow trout swimming in a wooden vat filled with honey. Before I was able to stare a bit longer and more closely at the trout, the body of Jakob rose before me, pulled the death shroud from his breast, and showed me his heart, white as snow.
Recently I have begun to see on packages of sweets numerous Austrian landscapes that were in fact long ago destroyed by industrialists, politicians, and their agents of environmental dissection. While the chocolate confection melts slowly on my tongue, I can contemplate, more or less conscientiously, the landscapes on the wrapper of the package. The brains of the Austrian politicians have been extracted by means of hooked instruments in the shape of swastikas, and maimed ex-combatants in wheel chairs have seasoned them with lemon juice and served them, in the manner of a Last Supper, to an actor who portrays Jesus in a passion play at Eastertime, on a silver platter, just before his crucifixion.
In Piazza della Pace in Rome, a vagrant lay for weeks in front of the doorway of the church, wrapped in a blanket atop cardboard boxes, until a boy and a girl approached him on a moped, drew to a halt, doused him in gasoline and set him alight. Agonizing, he burned like a torch before the portal of the church.
The young man on roller skates cursed when he got stuck in the earth of the grave mound of a suicide, then jumped onto the paved walkway of the cemetery and wiped the gummy soil from his skates with a paper napkin.
I was not even ashamed when I awoke with a shudder from a dream in which I had kissed the right cheek of a young boy, his hands blood-spattered from his first murder. I only asked myself if, had I not woken up, I would have stabbed the young man lying at my side in my sleep and returned, none the wiser, to bed and lay down, my hands spattered in blood.
In the Messaggero I found a photo and pasted it in my notebook, which is filled with images of the dried cadavers, arrayed in their vestments, of the bishops and cardinals from the priest’s corridor of the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo. A Turkish mother knelt with her arms outspread before the five corpses of her young children who had been killed in an earthquake and were lined up one beside the other. And another time I tore out a photo from the newspaper in which a young man had doused himself in gasoline and set fire to himself in Italy. The carabinieri and onlookers stood helpless around that torch, which continued to live for a few moments.
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.