With a Burning Church Steeple Under Each Arm

An introduction to Josef Winkler by Adrian West

Josef Winkler, the eternal altar boy, as he has called himself, was born in Kamering, a town with a population in the neighborhood of 200 in the Austrian state of Carinthia, known to English speakers, if at all, as the territory once governed by the flamboyant and controversial leader of the arch-conservative Austrian Freedom Party, Jörg Haider. Anemic and of a timorous disposition, if his writings are to be trusted, Winkler adapted poorly to his rural upbringing: the slaughtering, dressing, and milking of animals, the sowing of crops, the shoveling of manure, all the daily realities of life in the deep countryside, have an unearthly and even wanton quality in his fiction. Unlike more conventional practitioners of the so-called Antiheimatroman such as Franz Innerhofer and Alois Hotschnig, whose scorn derives from their hard-won urbanity, Winkler imbues these rituals with a kind of mystical significance, drawing on the Catholic tradition:

In the mornings and evenings, when he works in the barn, the eighty year old ploughman wears a gold monstrance on his bald head, tied under his stubbled chin with the dried umbilical cords of two mares. In its lunula is a blessed host impressed not with the body of Christ, but with the head of his own father.
The affections not forthcoming in his home—in his Büchner prize speech, Winkler recalls his mother telling him that he never once sat on his father's lap, and he claims only to have been embraced by him once, after they had killed the rats in the cellar of their farmhouse—were sought out first in his duties as an acolyte; then in books, after he discovers that the gilded angels on the main altar are hollow, with "no viscera, no heart, and no brain," and curses God, whispering, "Jesus, you pig!"; and eventually in relations with other men.

Homosexuality and literature have the same illicit status in Winkler's work; his mother's reprimand, "We've got no money for books!" and his subsequent thefts from his father's wallet to stock his shelf with the works of Genet, Julien Green, Oscar Wilde, and Camus are no less desperate than the indignation that befalls him when his father, watching a news report on a German general dismissed from his post on charges of homosexual conduct, shouts: "Faggots should be snipped, those freaks should have their pricks cut off!"

Partial escape came at fifteen, when he attended a trade school in Villach and afterwards took employment in the offices of a dairy. Later he began night classes at the university in Klagenfurt while employed by a publisher specializing in Karl May, the enigmatic author of Old West novels whose importance for Winkler, and for twentieth century German-language literature as a whole, is difficult to overestimate. His first novel, Menschenkind, was released in 1979 by the prestigious firm Suhrkamp, thanks to Martin Walser's enthusiastic commendation, and the same year he won special mention from the Ingeborg Bachmann prize jury for selections from his second novel, Der Ackermann aus Kärnten. Since that time, he has been devoted exclusively to his writing.

The cardinal aspect of Winkler's work is repetition. In his novel Wenn es soweit ist, the following phrase recurs ad infinitum, framing the series of disasters of which the book is composed:

In the clay vessel in which, from the bones of slaughtered animals, the putrid-smelling bone stock was distilled, to be painted on the horses with a crow's feather in the summer heat, around the eyes and nostrils, and on the belly, to protect them from the pricking and bloodsucking horseflies and mosquitoes....
The clay vessel is a receptacle for the bones of the village dead, and the novel chronicles village life as a series of necrologies. The reiterations in Wenn es soweit ist, as in Winkler's other novels, have an incantatory character related first to the liturgy of the Catholic church, and second to the repetition compulsion described by Otto Fenichel as an attempt to achieve mastery over traumatic situations. Fenichel writes:

the undoing sometimes does not consist of a compulsion to do the opposite of what has been done previously but in a compulsion to repeat the very same act. The first act was done in connection with an unconscious instinctual attitude; it is undone when the same act can be repeated once more under other inner conditions.
Repetition dominates both the details and the structure of Winkler's texts. Characters are introduced with epithets, such as "Lazarus with the fat earlobes" and "my fat and toothless grandmother"; their ages are nearly always invoked, even when, as in Natura Morta or Domra, the narrator is describing strangers from a distance. Further, the books' action—to put it imprecisely; it would better be described as a series of still images—is mostly reduced to the retelling of a series of iconic incidents: the author's aunt lifting him up over his grandmother's coffin, from which moment, as Winkler says, "the flood of remembered images begins"; the double suicide of Jakob and Robert, who hanged themselves from a hayloft beam with the same three-meter rope, one on each end, in September of 1976; or the death-struggles of the squealing pig, slaughtered with a bolt-gun, as the author hid, eyes closed, in his bedroom.

Yet to criticize Winkler as repetitious would be fair only if we accept the dubious proposition that the primary end of art is innovation, a view that represents, above all, the intrusion of market ideology into the creative realm and has led, in the visual arts, for example, to the most deplorable barrenness and triviality. In any case, it does not apply to Winkler, for whom writing is primarily therapeutic and reverential: at once an expectoration of those past horrors that constantly entice him to suicide, and an ode to those who have, in one way or another, been swallowed up by existence. It is in this connection that his tutelage, as he calls it, to Jean Genet has proven most fruitful, and his prodigiously graphic, purulent tableaux, blending the formalism of elegy with the courtship of that disgust which for Freud signified the beckoning of archaic libidinal drives, owe a great deal to the esthetics of Pompes Funèbres:

While they left his clothes hanging in his closet, they took his lifeless body down from the rope. They should have taken his clothes off the hangers and left his body on the rope. I would have camped out in the parish barn and stayed there writing as one chunk of flesh after another fell upon my head and shoulders, until, his lips rotted away, years had passed with him grinning at me with his skull. If he lost a tooth, I would have called the dentist. I would have had his hair cut once a week. The nails of his fingers and toes, which keep growing, I would have left until they were as long as scythe blades... I would have brought a chimpanzee, and together we would have picked and eaten the lice from Jakob's pubic hair and armpits.
"The dead," Winkler writes, "are also people," and merit the same respect as the living; at times more so, as those whom Winkler memorializes are often outcasts, homosexuals or slaughtered innocents, like Pino Lo Scrudato, dedicatory of Friedhof der bitteren Orangen, whose father murdered him with a hatchet because, instead of guarding his cows, he connected a television set to the tractor battery to watch the soccer match between Italy and Ireland. Writing does nothing to exorcise the vanished, who follow him from Austria to Paris, to Italy, Japan, and Mexico, to India; he lays them metaphorically to rest, in the clay vessel in Wenn es soweit ist and in Naples's Fontanelle Cemetery in Friedhof der bitteren Orangen; but, like the dead in W.G. Sebald's Emigrants, "they are ever returning," and Winkler's reiterations mark the changing significance of their life and death histories through time.

Kundera once suggested that detail, in literature, was sympathy for the ephemeral. In Winkler, the obsession for detail, which reaches its apogee in the fundamentally static novelette Natura Morta, represents a refusal or an inability to let what has vanished remain in the past: he is a practitioner of that moral resentment described by his fellow Austrian Jean Améry as a duty of the insulted and humiliated. Unforgotten, their vitality undiminished, these phantoms dwell alongside Winkler and impose upon his experience, invoked, as in Proust, by involuntary memory: a felt hat glimpsed in a magazine on the flight to New Delhi calls forth the hat worn by the suicide Jakob's father, who begins again to vilify the author: "He's not human... He's brought the village to ruin...Winkler will meet a bad end someday... The story isn't over yet"; and on the banks of the Ganges, watching corpses sink into the river, circled overhead by vultures, he relates:

The cry of a bird, hidden among the branches of a magnolia tree—I had heard it cry many times, though I had never seen it—recalled for me the cry of the death bird in the Carinthian forests and my fat, bedbound grandmother, who snorted loudly and was always asking me about the death bird, while I stood at the window staring out into the spruce trees, crumpling the curtain in my clammy hand: "Do you hear it? The jaybird! The jaybird is crying again! Who will die this time? Don't you hear the jaybird, Seppl!"
Over the past three decades, Winkler has assembled a body of work unique in terms of theme and style. He has been translated into the major European languages by such luminaries as Miguel Sáenz and Bernard Banoun, and has won nearly every significant literary prize in Germany and Austria. The indifference that has greeted him in the English-speaking world, where only two of his novels, The Serf and Flowers for Jean Genet, have been translated, both by a press specializing in Austrian literature and both more than a decade ago, speaks not only to the traditional Anglophone distaste for translation—a prejudice rather of publishers than of readers, if the successes of Pushkin Press and the NYRB Classics series count for anything—but also to the perversity of a literary climate in which the judges for the Man Booker prize, formerly considered a benchmark of respectability, can state as their chief criteria "readability" and the need to "zip along", and the book pages of the New York Times applaud A Visit from the Goon Squad as "tough" and "uncategorizable." One can only hope that readers are more discerning than the institutions that purport to guide them, and that the recent enthusiasm for his compatriots Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, whose works have recently been reissued in paperback by Vintage International, will lead to Winkler's finally receiving the critical recognition he has long deserved. 

All Winkler quotations translated by Adrian West.

Click here to read an excerpt from Josef Winkler's Natura Morta: A Roman Novella, translated from the German by Adrian West.