Selections from Graveyard of Bitter Oranges: The Dead of Carinthia
January 3, 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.
As a child, I often heard it said that the inhabitants of the village of my birth who had died away from Carinthia had been repatriated and their bodies committed to the soil of their birth. Siegfried Naschenweng, who died in an automobile accident on Golan Heights, was brought first to Vienna in an airplane, and from there repatriated to Kamering in a hearse from the funeral home in Feistritz. One of my mother’s brothers, who fell in the war in Yugoslavia, was repatriated to Feistritz by train. My uncle picked up his mortal remains with a hay cart drawn by two horses and brought them to Kamering, where they lay exposed one more day in his parents’ farmhouse. Apart from all the deceased enumerated and described in this book, the arms, legs, and skulls nailed to the tall stakes that Wilhelm Müller, author of the text to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, saw in passing from his carriage, while a young priest made the sign of the cross over every piece of the cadaver, are also repatriated to the graveyard of bitter oranges and coated with the ashes from the statue of Saint Florian, patron saint of fire, that the landholders of Kamering burned when the saint allowed the village, which had been built in the form of a cross at the end of the century before, to be reduced to ashes by two children playing with fire, so that it had to be rebuilt, once more in the form of a cross. The corpses of the then five-year-old children who were forced to live with a skull in their chambers in a Trappist monastery, to dine for years on nothing but bread and potatoes that they themselves planted, who were forced to wear a horse’s bit whenever they spoke a word without permission and had to sleep in coffins when they accidentally slept late in the mornings, once again open their eyes in grave number 24 of the graveyard of bitter oranges. To the graveyard of bitter oranges I repatriate as well the two gay boys, twenty-five-year-old Giorgio and fifteen-year-old Antonio, whose countrymen from Giarre, their hometown in Sicily, drove them to their demise, and who convinced a twelve-year-old boy to shoot them to death together—Don’t be afraid of the police, you’re still a minor—in exchange for a gold watch. Lined up side by side in the graveyard of bitter oranges are the corpses of those children of Naples who, during a festival in honor of the Virgin, were hung a whole day from a rope draped around the tall statues of the saints and swung in the air from side to side with cardboard wings attached to their backs. For hours they hung dead from the ropes, with angels’ wings on their back, before their small corpses were taken down. I repatriate to the graveyard of bitter oranges the seventeen-year-old boy who dared to break the cross of the Lord of Nazareth and whose stomach the faithful flayed around the navel, wedging a crucifix in his rent flesh. The boy with the flayed navel remained alive, and was chased in circles around the cross until his entrails wrapped around its base. Water dripped from the fine mesh of the nets that were used to fish out the hundreds of corpses of the children of nuns from the pond of a convent in Rome. The children’s bodies, knotted with the green tendrils of aquatic plants and coated in mud, were washed by the nuns, who chanted canticles, then repatriated to the graveyard of bitter oranges. The palm fronds that covered the body of a nun who was run down in the street lie in a pit in the graveyard of bitter oranges, beside a pink sports newspaper, blood-splattered and discolored, that likewise hid from the eyes of onlookers the bleeding head of a young motorcyclist who lay mortally wounded on the roadside. To the graveyard of bitter oranges I repatriate, in a bishop’s white gloves, embroidered with a golden cross, the finger bones of a saint, with one nail chipped off, though well-preserved and still sharp, which every year, in recollection of the painful circumcision of the child Jesus, has been set in the lunula of a monstrance and kept for twenty-four hours in the tabernacle, since one of the popes determined it may well have detached the prepuce from the tiny member of the child Jesus. The lizard with the forked tail—which immediately recalled to the priest who delivered the extreme unction the two fingers of a bishop’s hand extended in blessing—scurries back into the mouth of the gypsy girl Monica Petrovič, brought to the graveyard of bitter oranges after being murdered by a sixteen-year-old Roman boy, and it stays there, in its death throes, in grave number 20, nestled between her slowly rotting lungs. A Sicilian boy, who had learned in catechism that there was only one God and that one must pray only to him, saw, to his consternation, an unbelievable number of crosses in a church, on each of them the man from Nazareth was nailed, and he threw those that rested on the bye-altars to the ground and stomped on them, shouting There is only one God! There is only one God! until a nun appeared in the church of that nearly abandoned village—one of a handful of half-deaf church marms who worked there—then seized the peasant boy, dragged him away from the broken crosses, and strangled him to death with her rosary. I exhume the mortal remains of that boy, perished in a state of sin and buried outside the village’s cemetery walls without a priest to escort him, and I repatriate them to the graveyard of bitter oranges. The dead of the graveyard of bitter oranges are also sprinkled with the dust of the dead bodies of two cardinals who were dried out in ovens and ground up by the order of the pope, then placed in sacks resembling saddlebags and carried about by mules whenever his Holiness would travel with his retinue, to be exhibited as a warning to the other prelates. Not even a grain of dust remains of the boy with the cardboard wings who hanged himself from the branch of an olive tree with the image of the decapitated John the Baptist over his breast when the approaching lava would no longer grant respite to the pictures of the saints leaned up against the trees. A half-hour after he had taken his life, the lava reached the olive tree and set his corpse alight… The rosary beads that hang from a crucifix and are made of the vertebrae of one of the innumerable skeletons of the children of nuns found in the pond of a Roman convent lie in grave number 42 of the graveyard of bitter oranges, over the breast of the repatriated body of Pino Lo Scrudato, who was killed by his father with a hatchet in Sicily because, instead of tending to the cows on his farm, where there was neither electricity nor running water, he connected a television to the tractor battery to watch a soccer match. The cadaver of a bishop, with crumbs of holy wafers at the edges of his pallid lips, lies in the graveyard of bitter oranges over the mortal remains of the mentally ill sixteen-year-old boy in Sicily who was supposed, by the intercession of San Filippo, the patron saint of the insane, to have the devil driven from his body, and who used a communion candle to wedge holy wafers impressed with the image of San Filippo into his anus, thus mixing in his intestines the body of Christ with his own feces. The next night, wracked with fear and guilt, he awoke covered in sweat, entered the kitchen, sliced off his genitals with a butcher knife, and began to devour them while his blood drained from his body. Over the trampled corn in the concrete granary, where two children born in Carinthia and repatriated to the graveyard of bitter oranges were choked to death by the gases from the freshly harvested corn, they laid two cross-shaped bouquets of flowers with white ribbons that read: With love! and Your mother and your father, and when they rotted, they were mixed with the fodder and eaten by the cows, bulls, milk calves, and oxen, all in a jumble, fir needles, flowers, and paper ribbons… The suicides of my home village of Kamering, Hanspeter and his father, Jakob and Robert and Robert’s brother, and all the others from my village who died from brain tumors or cancer, from desperation and solitude, those whom the Catholic church drove toward death, the children and adults whose lives were ended by reckless drivers, by drunks and lead-footed truckers on the highways of the Drava valley, the children dead prematurely and those who were miscarried in my home village, the boy who drowned in a lake, the epileptic bricklayer’s apprentice who fell from a scaffold, the boy who was crushed by an overturned tractor, all are repatriated to the graveyard of bitter oranges. And yet, though I have walked from cemetery to cemetery and have read countless gravestones, paged through archives and spoken with the brothers and sisters in the convents and monasteries—and despite that I refuse to give up my search—I have never found the body of that young man who murdered a fifteen-year-old boy and was granted freedom by order of the pope and brought to a sacristy to be invested with blue silken garments. With a wreath of olive branches on his head, holding a lit candle in his hand, he sat before the altar in a church and recited a prayer of penitence… I will once again have to eat cemetery dirt if, one night, the ink ceases to flow through the black quills of the fir trees. I will brave the onslaught of the storm, nail the lightning bolts to the cathedral wall, and liberate the hanged bodies from their ropes, because in September of 1989, as I was completing a clean draft of this novel, Robert’s second brother brought his life to an end as well. Now the three Ladinig brothers hang from their ropes, one in Kamering, beside Jakob, in the parish house barn, the other in Arnoldstein, from a fir branch, and the third—whom I repatriate to the graveyard of bitter oranges as well—hanged himself in Villach, from a bridge spanning the Drava river. The eyelids will open against my nipples when I beat the drum with the leg bones of the swan. I know someone who had a harvest crown tied to his coffin, another who asked that they hang a gilded pyx from his coffin lid, in each case with bloodied calves’ halters, it goes without saying! If only, upon my death, the bereaved would throw a bishop’s cassock over my coffin, like a horse blanket over a mare’s warm and shimmering flanks! When not a lone word, not even a death rattle, emerges from my lips, I will strip my skin from my body, embalm it, and blow up my mortal sheath like a balloon, so that my skin may float above me. Before the words run through me like coffin screws, I can only hope that a spider nests in my heart, laying eggs, so that the abscess grows larger and larger, until it explodes and the creatures to whom I will have given warmth and shelter will crawl down my breast, cross over my navel, and reach my pubic hair, where they may settle for a day or two. With glue and the covers of my favorite books, I will fashion the lid to my coffin and lay it over the tub where I once crouched down—but when was that?—while the water drained over my pale bony shoulders and the turpentine soap impressed with the deer’s head slipped down my belly.
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.