Natura Morta: A Roman Novella

Josef Winkler

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

WITH WHITE PEACHES and a bouquet of red broom, an old man ran after a crippled woman hobbling toward a metro entrance in the Stazione Termini carrying the Cronaca vera in a clear plastic bag among her fresh vegetables, gave her the flowers, and shouted at the astonished woman, who turned around to receive them: Auguri e tante belle cose! And she thanked him for his attention before carefully descending the steps to the metro, dragging her feet, with her sack of white peaches, a bouquet of red broom and the tales of broken hearts and adversities, murders and suicides related in the Cronaca vera. In front of the escalator knelt a soiled beggar with cardboard sign reading: Ho fame! Non ho una casa! At his bare feet lay a large prayer card bearing an image from Guido Reni of the archangel Michael running his sword through a demon lying at the edge of Hell, his face sharing the features of Cardinal Pamphili, later known as Pope Innocent X. Near the prayer card, atop which lay a couple of crumpled lire, a candle flickered in a red plastic holder. Of the three pomegranates tumbling down the escalator, one split open, spilling red pomegranate seeds down over the concrete steps. To the colorfully dressed Somali women standing in a group around a flower shop in the subway vestibule, who work as domestics in Roman households, live with their acquaintances and still have no fixed address, a man distributed a thick sheaf of letters covered in Arabic script. A black-haired boy, around sixteen years old, whose long eyelashes nearly grazed his freckle-studded cheeks and who wore a silver cross around his neck, read aloud the scrawls on the subway station wall: Luisa ama Remo. Ti voglio bene da morire!

In the metro, a man kissed a woman in greeting and patted her kneecap several times with his flattened hand, while she tapped him on the thigh with her right fist. Just afterward, before getting out at the next station, he kissed her balled-up fist and took leave of her with the word, "Auguri!" A feeble-minded boy, hanging his head, a whiff of moustache on his upper lip, sat next to his fossilized grandmother, who waved a black fan in front of her glimmering sunglasses. When he noticed a man staring at his hips, he pawed his pants, making sure his zipper was closed. He wore a bracelet with the Roman colors on his right wrist, embroidered with the word Roma. With his right index finger, he touched a hollow pivot tooth and smeared pink Labello on his lips. Over the boy's head, on a fire extinguisher, L'Aids nel mondo, il Lazio in Italia! was written in black marker.

The black-haired sixteen year-old, his long eyelashes nearly grazing his cheeks, with a silver cross around his neck, accompanying his younger sister on the metro to the market in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, sat under an advert for horsemeat and pulled a white puppy to his breast. Ho scelto la carne equine, perché i bambini ne vanno matti was written on the left-hand side of the poster, under the image of a mother, seemingly worried for her children. On the right, a doctor in a white coat wagged his finger, and over him stood the words Consiglio la carne equine, perché contiene ferro in misura quasi doppio delle altre carni. A suntanned woman, overloaded with gold-plated jewelry, sobbed quietly and tugged at her nose each time she took another photo of two year-old twins from an envelope. Before leaving the metro, at the Piazza Vittorio, she stretched out her ten fingers and looked warily at her rings. A man holding a small briefcase of fine red leather got out along with a Moroccan teenager and mounted the escalator, a few steps behind the boy, to the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele.

*

A BLACK-VEILED nun, holding plastic bags full of cucumbers, apricots, and onions in one hand, and pressing two tall blonde Barbie dolls wrapped in plastic to her breast with the other, stopped before the tomato vendor, whose vegetable knife hung from a lanyard around his neck, lay the dolls on a wooden crate, and asked for a few kilos of tomatoes on the vine. The clothes of an old gypsy, dressed in black and kneeling on the ground, were laid out for sale over an open black umbrella. Her younger brother grimaced when a sixteen year old gypsy girl pulled a pair of boxer shorts printed with red hearts from a bundle of underclothes, pressed them into his hand, and shoved him on the shoulder, making him walk from stall to stall, offering the underwear for sale. A woman stood before an open jute sack destemming lavender and placing the dry, aromatic blossoms in blue sachets of mesh plastic. The wind stirred the onion skins lying on the ground, blowing them, red and white, in a circle. A gypsy, standing over the onion skins, white and light brown, counting money, screamed when a gypsy boy at play threw a jagged, crushed soda can at her right ankle. In winter coat and hat—it was over thirty degrees Celsius—an old Arab with five roses wrapped in cellophane walked along the stalls, hawking his wares to the vendors and to the visitors to the market. The woman selling red beets and potatoes crossed herself, her hands in orange plastic gloves, as a bearded monk in a long brown cowl walked by her stall, peddling prayer cards. An old gypsy woman dressed in black, having failed in her attempts to sell it, gave a shirt to the market musician, a Neapolitan who walked, singing and begging, through the market. A motif of snakes and arrows was tattooed on the Neapolitan's hairy forearms, and his bearded face was crab-red. Among the vegetable stalls, beside some spotless cast-off clothes, he found a jacket and tried it on, contemplating his reflection in a car window. He left his old blue track jacket beside the pile of clothes and went, taking nips from a beer bottle, further down the rows of stalls.

*

PICCOLETTO with the long eyelashes that nearly grazed his cheeks, sitting with spread legs between the public toilets and the souvenir shop on a cardboard box lid painted with pierced hearts, thrust the neck of a sealed bottle of mineral water into his mouth, extracted the blue cap, and afterward tapped the emptied bottle against his tanned, hairless upper thigh. In the gaping leg holes in his outsize yellow boxers, his testicles were visible, lightly covered in hair, and the black pubic hair in his pale groin. He put the silver cross hanging around his neck in his mouth, moistened it with spit, let it fall from his mouth to his breast, and snatched up the mineral water bottle rolling away empty. A blonde girl opposite him, a map of Rome in her waistband, leafed through an illustrated book on Michelangelo, stroking the flat of her right hand over the pages, touching the half-naked figures portrayed there, and spit at the pigeons picking at breadcrumbs. Her short-sleeved white shirt was printed with wine-red camels and sandy pyramids. The fig-vendor's son stood up, pressing the silver crucifix between his lips, tugged his boxers from between his buttocks, reached into his pants to adjust his genitals; ogling the girl seated across from him chewing a stick of gum, her legs outspread, shoving the city map of Rome deeper into her waistband, he sat back down on the cardboard.

After the girl had leafed through the picture book and passed it to her friend, likewise in shorts and smoking, she pulled a half-full bottle of Coke from her plastic bag and brought it to her lips. Starring into the girl's gaping leg holes—her pubic hair shimmered through her sheer peach panties—the fig vendor's son began to gnaw at a fruit bar, while the girl swished the warm leftover cola back and forth, glancing at the boy's dangling genitals and mimicking the cooing of a pigeon picking breadcrumbs from the flagstones before her legs, a lone claw on its crippled right foot. From in front and from behind, a young tourist photographed two laughing teenagers, nude but for their underwear, standing in front of the Casa del Rosario, who had lent out their ankle-length sweat pants and were waiting for their schoolmates to return from Saint Peter's. One of the boys laughed coquettishly, holding his white mesh T shirt in the air and swaying his hips, and pointed at his member, brazenly apparent in his tight designer underwear. A policeman wandering by looked at the hips of the blonde sitting by the wall of the sacred kitsch store chewing on gum. He winced and placed his hand on his pistol when a tourist tapped him cautiously on the upper arm, asking for directions.

The blonde girl with the wine red camels on her shirt rolled her chewing gum over her outstretched tongue, recalling a striped condom stretched over a bulging glans, and blew it up into a balloon, until, with a loud pop, the sticky blue strands of gum covered her nose and mouth. The fig vendor's son had been waiting for this moment; he stood up laughing, knelt down before the girl, and helped her—narrating his ministrations in Roman dialect—to pick the chewing gum from her mouth and chin. Without asking, he pulled the map of Rome from her shorts, stuffed in down to her pubic hair, sat back down on the cardboard box top, and thumbed through it nervously, pretending to look for a neighborhood or street, before folding it shut again. He pressed the map against his chin and then, still chewing his raspberry fruit bar, discreetly against his nose. From his right wrist hung an assortment of small, colorful pacifiers, which could be found at countless stalls in all sizes and colors that summer in Rome and which were worn around the neck and wrist, not only by children and teenagers; even the butchers gutting sheep and the fishmongers slicing open fish bellies in the market at the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele adorned themselves with these fetishes, catcalling after gypsy girls who were themselves festooned with plastic pacifiers.

Aroused, staring into the girl's leg holes and sniffing her map, the boy bit his tongue, coated in bits of fruit bar, stopped himself as he became aware of the taste of blood filling his mouth and glanced self-consciously at the mincing red feet of the pigeons.  Piccoletto stood, daubed his lip with a handkerchief, passed the city map of Rome to the girl, saying the words "Mille grazie!" and looked for the toilet. More than ten minutes passed before he returned from the toilet and sat back in his place. When the young man, looking at the girl, tickled the hollow of his right knee coquettishly with a grey pigeon feather, and the blonde girl with the wine red camels on her shirt noticed a streak, like a snail's trail, on his bent forearm, she pulled the elastic of her damp, peach-colored underwear, fanned fresh air inside, and let the elastic pop back several times against her right thigh. Afterwards she threw her friend's cold cigarette butt at the cooing pigeons picking crumbs of white bread from between the flagstones.

*

BETWEEN THE MARKET BAR and an alimentari, a white-grey husky on its hind legs rested its forepaws on a stone phallus and watched a honking ambulance enter the park of the Piazza San Vittorio after picking up a young drug addict, passed-out and foaming at the mouth, from under the branches of a pine tree. Terrified, the black and white cat crouching in the tall grass lifted its head and the sharp tips of its outwardly white, inwardly pink ears, nearly struck by a beer bottle thrown by the son of the fig-vendor, who was now wearing a small orange pacifier in his left earlobe, after he had drained it with a friend of his, the alimentari owner's son. A young gypsy cleaned her small child's backside with a plastic diaper, threw it at the trunk of a pine tree, sat her bare-bottomed child on her lap, plucked bits of meat and fat from a paprika salame and shoved them into the child's mouth. When Piccoletto, leaning against the railing of the metro stairs with the alimentari owner's son, yelled out "Carine!" to the two teenage gypsy girls passing by two black and white cats that tussled, biting each other, on the grass in the park, the smiling girls, still talking to one another, both with small varicolored plastic pacifiers in their earlobes, began playing with their hair and twirling their locks around their index fingers. One of the girls, folding her hands behind the nape of her neck, turned her head toward the two young men and bit her upper lip coquettishly. The girl tore a piece of fabric, pressed the scrap against her lips, which were smeared with red lipstick, and threw it in a branches of the pine tree. The two boys—the alimentari owner's son stood on Piccoletto's shoulder's—fetched the lipstick-streaked cloth from the tree and, each snatching the scrap from the other's hands, pressed it into their noses. One of the bathroom attendants in the park of the Piazza San Vittorio, nibbling a green fig, solved a crossword puzzle while the other sank herself deep into the liberally illustrated crime reportage of the Cronaca vera. In exasperation, a gecko dodged the black ants with red heads, over the sun-drenched walls of the market bathrooms, trying confusedly to return to his niche, which had just been plastered over by a bricklayer. Near the entrance to the market bathrooms, Piccoletto pulled a splinter from the elbow of the alimentari owner's son and smeared his spit over his friend's wound.

*

In the moment when, with lightning flashes and deafening thunder, amid the torrential rain beating down on the asphalt, a third fire engine, blasting its horn, passed at high speed over the rails of the streetcar, rounding the curve and splashing the fish stalls with an arc of water tinted red from the fish entrails cast off into the street, Piccoletto ran out into the street, toward the fire engine, holding a hot pizza. The pizza flew over the asphalt in a broad arc. The fire engine dragged the boy more than ten meters. Clothed now just in yellow boxers and a tattered T shirt with a portrait of the Beatles, Piccoletto lay on his back on the asphalt. The rain splashed over his body, over his face, over his open and immobile eyes, and ran into his mouth. At the feet of the unfortunate, the driver lifted his arms repeatedly in the air, speechless and disconsolate....

translated from the German by Adrian West

Click here to read Adrian West's essay on Josef Winkler, from our Writers on Writers Special Feature.



Read the original in German

Read translator’s note

Josef Winkler (1953) is one of Austria's most distinguished contemporary writers. For his obsessively detailed and intricately constructed treatments of village life, marked by the constant irruption of themes of homosexuality, betrayal, and death, he has been awarded the Great Austrian State Prize, the Ingeborg Bachmann prize, and the Georg Büchner prize, among others. His most recent book is Die Realität so sagen, als ob sie trotzdem nicht wär oder Die Wutausbrüche der Engel.

Adrian West is a contributing editor at Asymptote. His translations include the long poem cycle Alma Venus by Pere Gimferrer and Büchner-prize–winning novelist Josef Winkler's Natura Morta and When the Time Comes. His essays, translations, and short fiction have been published in numerous print and online journals, including McSweeney's, 3:AM, and Words Without Borders. He lives with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.


Acts of translation have distinct characters: if a text is dense with technical terms or colloquialisms, the predominant feeling is one of rummaging around and cobbling together something serviceable, which must later be ironed out into good prose; at times, in irritation at a writer's crutches or bad habits, one wishes to write against the text, and is forced to balance fidelity to the author's vision with the demands of good writing, which may change drastically across languages. In Spanish, for example, there is often a reliance on elevated periphrases that in English appear an almost violent avoidance of the point; in German, where actions are largely expressed by a small number of root verbs attached to prefixes, one is forced constantly to choose between the often more "natural" but inelegant phrasal verb in English and its Latinate alternative, which may risk disrupting the register.

I found the englishing of Natura Morta to be translation of the ideal sort: a chant à deux voix. The author's relentlessness, which makes itself felt in his other works through his moral insistency or his almost deranged recurrence to a brief but shocking catalogue of bereavements, suicides, and blasphemies, has given Natura Morta the cool gloss of polished ivory: there is no word out of place, no infelicity of diction, and every sentence, every episode, has the equipoise of verse. The challenge of the text was to render the same precision and suppleness in English.


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