Hell on Earth
If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”
All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted the viscous pandapigl.
The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.
As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note.
The entire village seems adrift in time. With the exception of a half dozen mentions of a modern vehicle or television set and several references to World War II, everything in the book might be occurring in the middle ages. In a community “engulfed in spite, slander, and litigation,” the villagers are filled with superstition, motivated by suspicion and religious intolerance, and embroiled in endless family quarrels. One group of old men, some of whom are veterans of the SS, annually reminisce on All Saint’s Day about the old days when there were no “Turks or Yugos,” no Jews or blacks, no vagrants or beggars, and no unemployment. “We need a little Hitler to bring back peace & quiet to the country. Someone needs to crack down!”
And yet, not everything is bleak and ugly. Winkler lovingly describes the rituals of childhood: decorating a Christmas tree, eating gooseberries and sweets, or getting a new book by Karl May (1842-1912), the German author of fanciful tales of far-away places like the American West.
After lighting the colored Christmas tree candles and the sparklers that hung in every corner the tree, throwing sparks over the branches and down onto the presents and deepening the pervading scent of spruce, they began to pray for their dead grandfather, and for their mother’s three brothers who had fallen in the war, and tears drained from their eyes and snot from their noses, until their father, who led the prayers, began an Our Father and a Hail Mary for Aunt Waltraud, who had died two days before, still lay exposed in the Annabichler funeral home in Klagenfurt, and would not be buried until after Christmas. While the father, a little shortsighted, raised his trimmed eyebrows & wrinkled his forehead to read the nametags and pass out the presents, the children continued mourning Aunt Waltraud – she had come to visit one summer day & had brought the children their first ice creams, lemon, and vanilla, in an insulated box from her pastry shop. Their tears, tickling their cheeks & dripping down onto the boxes, softened the wrapping paper covering a flannel shirt, a pair of wool socks, or long underwear. Each one of them could take some sweets down from the Christmas tree, the children also gave the maid and the farmhand chocolate pine-cones and varicolored gelatin stars coated in sugar. Nor did Maximilian’s sister neglect to give the stammering farmhand a chocolate half-moon and a pair of chocolate pliers. With their fingers, the children smoothed out the colored wrappings, printed with pine cones, chimney-sweeps, lucky clovers, rocking horses, frogs, and butterflies, and slid them as book marks into their storybooks and Karl May novels.
As this excerpt shows, Winkler’s writing is delicious and exact and deeply rooted in the visible world. Winkler writes with the authority and conviction of an insider who once saw the world through a child’s eye and who still might harbor thoughts of being capable of loving his fellow Austrians, but who simply no longer can. The hypocrisy he sees runs too deep. When the Time Comes is an indictment of a brutal and boorish society and an utter rejection of the cynicism of Catholicism, if not of all Christianity. The book is laced with quotations from two very different textual sources. The first set of quotations are ones that Winkler has apparently culled from Catholic songbooks. They represent some of the more bitter verses which serve as a reminder that sin, violence, and death are at the core of Catholicism (“She saw Jesus tied & pierced with a thousand wounds for the iniquity of man. She saw the son she had once nourished disgraced and abandoned, pale and thirsting on the cross.”). The other set of quotations come from Baudelaire’s poem “Les Litanies de Satan” (The Litanies of Satan) from Les Fleurs du Mal, a poem that, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, is a blasphemous “renunciation of religion, and Catholicism in particular.”
In a review of When the Time Comes in The Guardian, Alberto Manguel briefly recounts a lunch he had with W.G. Sebald in 2000, during which he asked Sebald to recommend some Austrian writers. “Immediately he mentioned Josef Winkler, whose work he considered a counterweight to what he saw as Austria’s moral infamy.” Contra Mundum’s publication of When the Time Comes, with a translation by Adrian West, has a blurb from Sebald planted on the back cover that originates in an essay published in 1990 on the Grazer Gruppe of writers, which includes Elfriede Jelinek, Peter Handke, and Gert Jonke, among others.
Josef Winkler’s entire, monomaniac oeuvre…is actually an attempt to compensate for the experience of humiliation and moral violation by casting a malevolent eye on one’s own origins.