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 first night after we had moved into a sublet room in Rome, I dreamed of a girl who had a swatch of blood resembling a Hitler moustache on her upper lip. As she approached me, and I kicked my legs at her frantically, blood ran from down over her mouth and chin. I sprang awake, and tried to awaken Andrea, but I seemed to be paralyzed, and it was only minutes later that I could once more move around the bed. I said nothing, and waited more than an hour for sleep to return. After that dream followed a second. Bishops and cardinals in their vestments were dying in a hail of bullets; though they stayed dead in their seats, I could not distinguish a single wound on their bodies. I approached a cardinal and looked long at his body. Then I was jarred awake once more by the clangorous bell of the Convent in the Via Tolmino, which tolls every quarter of an hour and which had only allowed me, my first few nights there, to sleep in fifteen-minute increments.
You no longer show any sign of life? But I write about death, my friend!
I like to be among the dead, they do me no harm, and they are people, too.
It’s good that it’s only February and the tree in front of my window has not yet gone green again and is still not covered in leaves, because this way, at least, I can look down at the street from my bedroom in Rome, particularly when I grow bored, and wait to watch a traffic accident take place. Naturally, I would like to be the first to run to the victims’ aid.
On the street I saw a man in reading glasses perusing a copy of L’Unità that was fixed to a wall. The man held two mirrors, which he used to project the light from the streetlamp onto the newspaper.
An oil lamp in my hand, I strode over a crosswalk that separated the tombs of Hubert Fichte and Jean Genet.
The skeletal crackling of a dove overrun by a hearse was drowned out completely by the clamor of the street.
For various tenths of a second, in the glimmering glass window of a shop in Rome that sold religious kitsch, the chasubles of archbishops and cardinals, pyxes and statues of saints, the reflection of two policemen rolling slowly down the street was imposed over a life-sized statue of Jesus holding a banner of the resurrection, wrapped in clear plastic film.
In Trastavere, my knees began to quake when I glanced into a hairdresser’s shop and saw a man in a wheelchair seated at a mirror having himself shaved. The barbiere, with a gesture, led me to understand that he was at my disposal as well, and that I too could sit down in the wheelchair, if only I would carelessly cross the street.
In the film version of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, which starred Marcello Mastroianni, when the judge asked the murderer Meursault to repent, he took a silver crucifix from his file drawer and waved it before Meursault’s nose. And this man, do you know who he is? cried the judge in a trembling voice. I felt as though he’d held the cross before my own eyes in the cinema. As if to defend myself, I turned toward my seat back and pressed my face into my hands.
On September 19th, when the blood of Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples, is said to liquefy, Neapolitan children cover their mouths with reproductions of Saint Januarius, and later tear the stickers off, and they cling so staunchly to the children’s lips that blood begins to run and little slivers of skin remain stuck to the reverse side of the images.
When, in Lido di Ostia, I had to reach into my pocket for the fifth time today, I flung my loose change at the feet of the beggar in the doorway of the cathedral, so that she would have to bend down as a punishment.
Will I never again see that boy who knelt down in a field on the outskirts of Rome, blinding the black ants with a mirror?
A group of disabled veterans in uniform marched in goosestep—to the extent that their handicaps would permit—between the tombstones of a Jewish cemetery.
Large crosses shimmered in the darkness over the breasts of the nuns when lit up by the headlights of passing cars.
I lit two candles after reading, in the diary of Friedrich Hebbel, the story of the death of his young son.
In front of a butcher’s shop in the Rue Saint-Denis in Paris, I saw an enormous boar, dead but not yet portioned into pieces, its bloody maul tied shut with a plastic bag. Only when I had asked the saleswoman for the fourth time what the entire boar would cost, having not the slightest interest in the price per kilo, did she weigh it and give me an answer. With the bloody boar on my back, I walked along the Seine to Pere Lachaise and buried the animal beside Oscar Wilde’s dreadful grave marker. I woke with my heart pounding and touched the nape of my neck, which the boar’s black bristles had irritated.
Was there really cemetery dirt in every one of my mother’s flowerpots? The scent of the those snowdrop stems, plucked, on a child’s hands!
The children in the mental hospital, cinched to the iron bars of their beds, cannot even turn from side to side when they take fright, hearing the last bellows of the animals in the slaughterhouse next door.
I was terribly ashamed, one rainy night in Rome, when a Walt Disney film showing on television allayed my fear of death and, with a beer in my stomach, I was able to sleep peacefully.
Instead of fingers, I saw ten crabs on my hands rotating a black-trimmed funeral notice. In vain I tried to make out the name of the deceased.
I swam across the Dneiper in the vestments of the Pope, my head between my teeth.
A beggar, with an interminably ringing bell on his wrist and a large placard of the Virgin Mary hung over his chest, walks around amid the people in the Piazza Rotunda, holding out a silver-plated bowl.
If it had to be, I would rather my life be saved by an animal than a human being, because I would owe my life to that person till the end of my days, even were he to say: don’t thank me, it’s nothing! Purely from a sense of guilt for having to thank a human being for my survival, I would bring my life to an end.
I immediately drew back my hand from the broad iron slit of the mailbox, after the letter had tipped and fallen silently into the red metal receptacle of the mailbox in Rome, because I feared that my hand, and not only the letter, could fall inside.
Who was the bald young man in women’s dress who plunged from the tree to the ground dead, and whose face was covered in brown packing paper? A boy approached the body, took the packing paper from his face, folded it, and placed it in his shoe like an insole.
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.