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Josef Winkler. Natura morta: Eine romische Novelle.

Frankfurt a.M. Suhrkamp. 2001. 104 pages. DM 32. ISBN 3-518-41269-8

JOSEF WINKLER'S Natura morta, subtitled "A Roman Novella," is the story of Piccoletto, the teenage son of an unnamed fig seller who makes a living hawking her fruits at the Piazzo Vittorio Emanuele near the Vatican in Rome. The plot, lean to the point of absurdity, is developed in a fictional space devoted mainly to detailed descriptions of the working-class street vendors who sell their goods to tourists. The story's action, if one can use that term here, is built around the daily routines of these Roman street people. Even the quotidian dialogue is sparse (and all in Italian). The plot's only real events are Piccoletto's accidental death--he is hit by a fire engine as he crosses the street in a rainstorm--and the brief funeral that follows. One would think it impossible to sustain a narrative for more than one hundred pages with no other events than this, but Winkler more than manages to hold the reader's attention. While the story itself is hardly engrossing, Winkler's novella is still something of a page-turner, due to the author's powers of description and his impressive style, which combine to transform the crude but picturesque goings-on at the marketplace into a strangely hypnotic reading experience.

Essentially a literary tableau, perhaps intended in the manner of Renaissance Italian painting, Natura morta compensates for its lack of dramatic action with a panorama of character sketches. In addition to the central figure, who is actually only vaguely drawn, we observe Principe and Frocio, his earthy co-workers at a fishstand, as well as many minor figures, among them a fat, toothless lemon seller whose eyelid twitches incessantly, a nun whose face is covered with warts, a fat butcher who specializes in horsemeat, and various other merchants dealing in bloody animal body parts. The meat of the story, if you will, is in the human minutiae, including numerous caricatures of tourists, whose significance is limited to making Winkler's naturalistic Roman tableau come to life. This naturalism also allows Winkler to indulge in the blood-and-guts depictions of brute life upon which he has built his literary fame. "Blood," as a character in one of his previous novels says, "is not a special fluid, whatever Mephistopheles would have Faust believe." Indeed, it flows freely in Natura morta.

Winkler has received numerous prizes for his work and is known as one of the most innovative contemporary Austrian writers. For Natura morta he was awarded the 2001 Alfred Doblin Prize. He writes a virtuoso prose laden with complex and artful periodic sentences reminiscent of Thomas Mann or Kleist, but combines this classically sculpted style with blasphemous attacks on Catholicism, obscene descriptions of sex and violence, and a lacerating critique of repressive social structures. All of these qualities are apparent in Natura morta, where his vitriol against Catholicism is staged before the Vatican and the crucifixes everyone seems to wear are reduced to gaudy jewelry for the adornment of lustful bodies. In a previous novel, Der Leibeigene (1987), Winkler's alter-ego narrator remarks, "I'm not interested in putting the world in order; the disorder, beatified by the Pope, is sacred to me." This disinterest is apparent in Natura morta, where Winkler's working-class naturalism is motivated less by political engagement than by an obsessive desire to open the literary sensibility to sensory experience and to the simple pleasures of breaking taboos.

Winkler's writings are filled with the violence and brutality that he appears to think constitute the fundamental elements of existence, and Natura morta is no exception--except that here the excesses of his previous novels are somewhat muted, become even self-parodic, consisting of relatively innocuous descriptions of fish-gutting and chicken decapitations. The choice of the novella genre may signal that Winkler is entering a neoclassical phase. But for an author who delights in breaking convention, Winkler observes the rules of the novella genre almost to the letter, including the insertion of a Wendepunkt or perepeteia, that striking swerve in the story line that redirects and defines the protagonist's fate. Despite its vivid depiction, the turning point of Natura morta, Piccoletto's violent death, is hardly violent in the ordinary sense, its potential horror subdued, even transfigured, by the esthetic treatment it receives here under Winkler's uncharacteristically gentle hand. Many pages are devoted to the aftermath of the fatal accident, which features a blood-smeared Frocio carrying Piccoletto's broken body around the Piazza in a hysteria of lament. Despite its images of slaughter and manslaughter, the death scene is rendered beautifully, as if to echo and intensify the sublimely mournful verses of Giuseppe Ungaretti (written after the death of his nine-year-old son) that serve as framing mottos for each short chapter of the novella.

Despite the prosaic quality of its setting and characters, Winkler's novella succeeds in its apparent attempt to transcend narrative prose and elevate the author's language to a higher level of symbolic density. Perhaps Winkler is saying that blood is, after all, a special fluid, though not in the sense that Mephisto intended it. Perhaps the blood with which Winkler daubs man and beast alike is employed to paint a literary still life that contends with and subverts the Renaissance masters of visual art. When Giorgio Vasari, the Florentine art critic and biographer of the Italian Renaissance, looked at a painting, he was likely not only to describe what he saw, but also to use its images as the catalyst for writing a novella. Perhaps Winkler follows Vasari's model, reversing the esthetics of adaptation by which Renaissance painters transformed literary fantasies into visual narratives.
Jeffrey Adams
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
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Author:Adams, Jeffrey
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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