From: The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges

1. IN NAPLES, on All Souls’ Day, the bakers along the road to the cemetery were selling sugar skulls the size of a child’s head, and small sugar skeletons, particularly to the children, who sucked and licked at them with dedication. Young boys with cloth bags painted with skulls approached the passersby carrying wax candles and chrysanthemums on their way to the cemetery, and shouted repeatedly, For the souls of the dead! A pittance for the souls of the dead! On All Souls’ Day the crypts were lit up, the skeletons suspended from the walls were dressed in fresh grave clothes, and the coffin lids were opened and the removable glass panel taken out so that the relatives of the decaying dead could see their face, caress them, and make the sign of the cross over their head. The mummy of a priest, dressed in sacramental robes, sat at the deathbed of a mummified new mother pulling her dead, embalmed nursling to her dead, desiccated breast.

2. A BLACK CHURCH FLAG embroidered with silver carcasses and naked skeletons fluttered in the wind. On a cushion of red velvet lay the livid, bloated head of a fifteen-year-old girl, frothed blood on her lips and a white rosary braided into her hair, rocking back and forth with the slow steps of the pallbearers. Boys and girls in white clothes, with paper angels’ wings on their shoulders, white daisy wreaths in their hair, and the image of the Christ child on their breasts, walked alongside the girl’s open coffin. The relatives of the deceased carried short sticks capped with little flags embroidered with the first and last initials of the deceased. Boys flocked to the torchbearers, gathering up the fallen wax in paper sacks for later sale.

3. IN THE VIA VERGINI in Naples, on the second floor of an old building–I can hardly resist lapsing into the fairy tale tone I have struck here–in 1987, there lived a woman with her seven children in a small room with a small bathroom and kitchen adjoining, and she nourished herself and her children exclusively on mice and cats. The mother and her children slept on a squalid, foul-smelling mattress among garbage and mounds of dust, on a floor constantly wet with urine. One of the seven children, the twenty-one-year-old Raffaele, died in extreme agony en route to the San Gennaro psychiatric clinic in an ambulance with flashing blue lights. Raffaele, who lay four days in the apartment in a coma, appeared to have been cared for neither before nor during his death struggles. He’d been sick since birth, murmured Adele de Simone, a fifty-five-year-old widow. When his father, an employee in the public transit system, was still alive, the mother and children were said to have been well nourished, but after her husband died, she’d left her family in utter neglect. The children appeared neither to have complained nor to have abandoned their home. After the, as it was described, mysterious death of Raffaele, the deputy public prosecutor ordered an autopsy of the young man’s body and dispatched a doctor and an official from the Commune di Napoli to the Via Vergini. Another son, the twenty-six-year-old Antonio, was taken to the hospital after the doctor diagnosed him, not only with morbid obesity–he weighed 160 kilograms–but also with acute viral hepatitis. Nearly breathless, the young man could only get out a few words: For months we’ve eaten nothing but mouse and cat meat! That was all there was to eat in our family!

4.WHENEVER THEY EMBARKED, Neapolitan boatmen used to take with them a small box of iconic figurines. If a storm came, they would let their oars sink and fetch the sacred box. The first patron saint would be taken out and prayed to fervidly for help. If the storm raged on, and the waves swelled, the obdurate saint would be hurled into the sea or else desecrated on board the ship. After coming aground, the boatmen would pass around a tin among the passengers and collect alms for the naked and shriveled souls in purgatory, their hands held aloft, scorched by the flames, as painted on the tin. According to an old Neapolitan custom, a midwife sprinkled salt in the vagina of a newborn girl. Thereafter, the priest anointed the girl’s forehead with a salve prepared with mold from the head of an unburied cadaver and the fat of a boar slaughtered in the midst of procreation, and said, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen! From the young girl’s pierced earlobes, crusted with blood and pus, hung two holy wafers, smelling of fresh grain, impressed with the fingerprints of the reigning pope.

5. WITH THE STATUE of Saint Olivia, borne with chanting through the countryside in a procession, and with the monstrance raised high, a host encased in its lunula impressed with the head of an insect, the archbishop exorcised the locusts from the fields, after they had devastated broad swathes of land in Sicily. As the young and the faithful, the priests and the acolytes walked praying and chanting through the swarm, innumerable locusts nestled in their vestments and on the prayer cards they had carried with them, in the rosaries wrapped around the hands and in their hair, and on the monstrance, which the archbishop carried through the fields in his upstretched hands, until the holy sacrament was black with insects, and the locusts had crept into the black cylinder and devoured the body of Christ.


Josef Winkler

Josef Winkler (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of numerous novels and collections of stories, among them the award-winning trilogy Das wilde Kärnten. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. Winner of the 2008 Büchner prize and current president of the Austrian Art Senate, Mr. Winkler lives in Klagenfurt with his wife and two children.

Adrian West

Adrian West's short fiction has been published in McSweeney's and Evergreen Review, and excerpts of his translation of Josef Winkler's Natura Morta, along with a critical introduction to the author, can be found in the April 2012 issue of Asymptote. He has recently completed a novel entitled The Philosophy of a Visit. He lives in Philadelphia with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.

Friedhof der bitteren Orangen. Copyright (c) Josef Winkler, 1990. English translation copyright (c) Adrian West, 2012. Translations published by permission of Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin.