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Josef Winkler. When the Time Comes.

Josef Winkler. When the Time Comes. Trans, and intro. Adrian West.

Contra Mundum, 2013. 228 pp. Paper: $16.00.

Josef Winkler. Natura Morta: A Roman Novella. Trans. Adrian West.

Contra Mundum, 2014. 124 pp. Paper: $16.00.

The self-proclaimed "eternal altar boy" of Austrian literature, Josef Winkler stands in peculiar relationship to his contemporaries. Where Gert Jonke and Peter Handke sought to bend the pastoral novel with postmodern wit and ingenuity, Winkler's project might better be cast as an act of arson on the quiet form, setting fire to the provincial beauties and traditions with the embers of Catholic orthodoxy and National Socialist ideology. Contra Mundum Press's new editions of When the Time Comes and Natura Morta, deftly translated by Adrian West, serve as fitting introductions to Winkler's narrative aesthetic. When the Time Comes takes on the form of a village's necrology, framed by a brutal refrain that swells with each new accident, murder, or suicide, adding yet another skeleton to the village's bone stock: "In the very bottom of the clay vessel where the putrid-smelling bone stock was rendered from the bones of slaughtered animals ... lie the arm bones of a man, torn from his body in a trench on the battlefield." Tragedy piles upon tragedy, skeleton upon skeleton, until the vessel brims with the stories of a village's mounting deaths. The relentlessness of the ghastly images and their growing repetitions bring to mind the call and response of a Catholic liturgy, albeit one transfigured by Nazism's mass graves.

Natura Morta hides similar themes beneath a veneer of vibrant life. Winner of the 2001 Alfred Doblin Prize, Winklers novella is the brief but dense story of a young mans tragic death told through a series of colorful scenes in a present-day Roman street market. The repetitions are now more subdued. Still lifes of herbs, flowers, and fruit--rosemary, white peaches, apricots, red and white broom--appear again and again, beautiful and sensuous and always, in Winkler's hand, serving as reminders of inevitable rot and decay. These images are set against the blood and offal of the butcher's table: "A macellaio in Piazza Vittorio, with a white surgeon's glove stretched over his right hand ... broke open a sheep's head that had already been split with a cleaver." The constant return to death amid a setting so teeming with life renders a curious sense of stasis, where the sensual and the mortal aim to even one another out. It's narrative as incantation, summoning up and then exploding its objects--flesh, flower, and otherwise. Indeed, in their focused repetition and clarity of purpose, both of these books evidence a writer working at the edges of the novel's form, pushing his prose out into startling new territories. If, in Winkler's view, death is life's only answer, then it is still up to literature to frame our living questions. [HAL HLAVINKA]

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Author:Hlavinka, Hal; Novella, Natura Morta: A Roman
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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