Natura Morta

By Josef Winkler


Contra Mundum Press
January 2014


Reviewed by William Emery


To read Austrian master Josef Winkler's Natura Morta is to peer into the early days of the fictive universe. Order exists but has not yet cooled into plot. Names, in the early stages of the story, merely provide the spatial coordinates to bodies. Symbols, like proto-planets, take up space but are not yet themselves. An unnamed predecessor to theme flows through the pages like solar winds. But this is no cold, intellectual exercise. This is the meat: raw, substantive and sensate. Each detail is gravitational, inescapable, and unexplainable, yet a necessary condition for life. And it all takes place in a Roman marketplace.

A macellaio in Piazza Vittorio, with a white surgeon's glove stretched over his right hand, two fat gold rings on his left, and a gold watch on his left wrist broke open a sheep's head that had already been split with a cleaver, pulled the brain from the skull, and carefully laid the two lobes of the brain, one beside the other, on a pink sheet of watermarked wax paper. In the right eye socket, glimmering silver—the extracted eyeball lay over a mound of offal—a violet-glimmering fly roamed about. A red kerchief poked from the breast pocket of the butcher's bloodied apron. He wrapped up the brains for a negress and placed them in a plastic bag.

This kind of writing, this extremity of detail, makes up the majority of Natura Morta. The reader meets the immersive and punctuating specificity with desire, desperation, and occasional nausea. We are in the unyielding clutch of the darkest of needs: the indiscriminate love for matter itself. In this ordered radiation one bright, vivifying body appears with the greatest frequency. He is called Piccoletto. He is the sixteen-year old son of a fig vendor. His lashes nearly graze his cheeks. Piccoletto's importance, according to the unwavering logic of the composition, lies not in any internal worth or agency, but in the effect his undeniable sexuality has on other bodies.

Winkler's frank portrayal of the boy's sexual power is exhilarating. In a brief scene (all the scenes are brief, most are not even scenes), Piccoletto meets a young tourist who has been storing a map of Rome in her shorts.

Aroused, staring into the girl's leg holes and sniffing at her map, the boy bit down on his tongue, coated in bits of fruit bar, then stopped as he became aware of the taste of blood filling his mouth and glanced self-consciously at the mincing red feet of the pigeons. Piccoletto stood, daubed his lip with a handkerchief, passed the city map of Rome to the girl with the words "Mille grazie!" and looked for the toilet. More than ten minutes passed before he returned from the toilet and sat back in his place. When the young man, looking at the girl, tickled the hollow of his right knee coquettishly with a gray pigeon feather, and the blond girl with the wine-red camels on her shirt noticed a streak, like a snail's trail, on his bent forearm, she pulled several times on the elastic of her damp, peach-colored underwear, fanned fresh air inside, and let the elastic pop against her right thigh.   

Piccoletto's admirers are legion. A ten-year old girl is transfixed by the bit of scrotum peeking out of his shorts. An old woman on a crowded tram inhales the scent from his armpits. A woman speaking to her lover in a telephone booth shows off her engorged vulva to him through spandex. And Frocio, the fat, middle-aged fishmonger for whom Piccoletto works, once "pressed his hand, blackened from squid ink and speckled with fish scales, into Piccoletto's breast and rubbed his bristly beard against the boy's soft, slightly downy cheek."

"Natura morta" can be translated into squeamish English as "still life," and there is certainly something painterly, even pointillistic about Winkler's technique. But in the original Italian the life and death binary is obvious and this blunt dichotomy screams from every page. The lens Winkler uses to create these sensations has been ground with deep irony. The placement of certain seemingly neutral observations in close proximity highlights cultural absurdities, like the body-hatred of the Catholic Church against an Italian heat wave, the profligacy of food waste next to abject poverty, or the inherent cruelty of selling flesh flung into the middle of quotidian food shopping. But these easy targets are far from the purpose of the text. They act instead as a kind of political, as opposed to comic, relief from the wave after wave of grotesque life, ever-present death, and the volcanic sexual desire in between.

Natura Morta reads well against the seminal Teuton-among-the-Italians novella, Death in Venice, but where Mann's tale of boy love, death, and discomfiting weather pits the Apollonian against the Dionysian, Winkler's riposte is complete bacchanal. In Natura Morta, Apollo, if he appears at all, is but a coin smeared with blood, shit, and sweat as soon as it is tendered. The two novellas bear the conversation; Winkler has won an embarrassment of awards and stands almost as tall as his predecessor in countries other than this one.

Winkler has fallen victim to our market's provincialism regarding literature in translation and we owe tremendous thanks to Adrian West and Contra Mundum Press for bringing the text to such vivid life. Natura Morta deserves hyperbolic praise. It should be studied, passed among friends, argued over, and stolen from shamelessly and thoroughly. Winkler has stripped fiction bare and approached the line that separates composition from reality itself. Delight and horror contest on every page. And what's more, at the book's end, after Piccoletto is hit by a fire engine, dies, and is given a funeral, in one short, final paragraph, a story, a symbol, a character, and a theme miraculously emerge. A name, a mere coordinate, becomes a man. And this man, in inconsolable, Orphic grief, wandering aimlessly among weathered tombs with a bouquet of red broom (an object from the very first image in the book), invents a new and ancient narrative by whimpering to no one that can hear: "buona notte, anima mia!" The reader is stricken, as though by the birth of a star.