Alberto Manguel hopes this translation of stories about sin and retribution will give an Austrian great the credit he is due
During a lunch with WG Sebald in June 2000, I asked him, since he had written splendid essays on Austrian literature, which Austrian writers he recommended. Immediately he mentioned Josef Winkler, whose work he considered a counterweight to what he saw as Austria’s moral infamy. I then read three or four of his novels, which all revolve around the same theme: the deep-rooted corruption of Austrian society, especially the farming society into which Winkler was born in 1953. The themes of medieval Catholic traditions, the hardships of rural life and a loveless family are explored over and over again. Winkler’s prose reads like a palimpsest of angry stories, each trying to outdo the previous one in increasing depth and relentless scrutiny. Reading Winkler is like peering harder and harder into one of those painted Flemish hells that seethe with horribly inventive details of sin and retribution.
The horrors of the second world war provided European countries with a gruesome mythology that has taken on different guises in the various literatures. By and large, for the English, the stories that stem from it are documentary; for the French, they lean towards philosophical fables; for the Italians they take on the tone of magical folk-tales. For German speakers, they seem to have a grotesque eschatological underpinning, as if for Anna Seghers, Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and so many others, the experience of the war in this world darkly mirrored, not through religious faith but through literary intuition, the experience of the next. For Austrian writers in particular (Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek), the mindset that made so many of their fellow citizens behave as they did under Hitler did not change much after the war. For Winkler, the period from the Anschluss in 1938 to the division of Austria into four zones in 1945 merely rendered the Austrian ethos more explicit: nothing much changed before or afterwards, except an uncanny ability to dissemble. As the old joke has it, the Austrians’ greatest triumph has been to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.
Only three books by Winkler have been translated up to now into English. The third, cleverly translated by Adrian West, with an illuminating introduction, is a good example of Winkler’s powerful art. Set in a village in his native Carinthia, it centres on a 90-year-old man whose occupation is to cook bones until they become a greasy, viscous, foul-smelling brew used to smear the eyes, ears, nostrils and bellies of horses, to protect them from pestering insects. The noxious liquid becomes the device by which the many characters and events of the novel are brought into play; like the bones of the dead used by the ancient brewer, the flesh of the living is collected and made to render its stories.
Thus we hear of the artist-priest who decorated a calvary wall with the image of a soul being tortured in hell, that of a villager who, before the war, threw a statue of Christ over a waterfall and who, later, during the war, lost both arms in the trenches. We hear of the hunchback Hildegard, an arthritic hag who forgets to wash, and whose sister Helene is married to a brutal man “who even today venerates Hitler […] and who, by way of punishment, used to make his daughter Karin – not yet 20 – go alone to the cesspit with a long-handled ladle to gather faeces and throw them into the manure tanker with a rusty bucket, until bloody blisters formed on her hands”. We hear of two boys who end their lives together, lovingly embraced, by tying ropes to their necks and jumping into the stream where the blasphemer had thrown the holy statue. We hear of 15-year-old Ludmilla who, upon discovering her first menstruation, flings herself into the nearby rapids.
The recorder of all these deaths (there are many more) is the almost anonymous narrator; the stories are those of his childhood. In opposition to the pastor’s credo, who tells the dead: “A deep chasm divides us. None of us can go to you and none of you can come to us,” the narrator’s mission is to allow the dead to speak again. “I’ve written 13 books on death,” Winkler told an interviewer, “but I always manage to stick life somewhere in them.” Baudelaire’s “The Litanies of Satan” punctuate this novel, undermining the Catholic litanies that the characters occasionally mouth, just as the occasional memories of the events of the Nazi era are set alongside episodes of ordinary daily brutality.
The standing of Winkler in German-language literature is undisputed. The German writer Martin Walser was euphoric when he discovered Winkler’s work; Grass praised him for the intensity of his writing. He has won almost every major literary prize in Germany and Austria. It is to be hoped that this translation will bring his writing to the attention of a wider, curious and intelligent English-speaking public.
• When the Time Comes is available from contramundum.net
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/34316a32/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Cbooks0C20A130Cnov0C280Cwhen0Etimes0Ecomes0Ejosef0Ewinkler0Ereview/story01.htm