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"I am the eternal altar boy"

This year's Büchner-Prize laureate Josef Winkler talks to Paul Jandl about dung heaps, the fear of speechlessness and the elegance of John Paul II's coffin.

NZZ: Herr Winkler, shall we talk about life or death?

Josef Winkler: I have written thirteen books about death but somehow, since having children, I am surrounded by life. I can only warn my twelve-year old son about the dangers of life, so it doesn't end too early, in death. For one novel I chose the title "Der Leibeigene", (the bondsman) not because it deals with the relationship between master and servant, but in reference the Baroque poet Jakob Ayrer, who said: "I am Death's bondsman, and otherwise it cannot be." Perhaps I should have called the book "Death's bondsman", to make it clear once again, that this is my life's theme.

When you were a small child your aunt lifted you up to the coffin of your dead grandmother, saying "Look Sepperl, look!" In retrospect, you might call this an artistic initiation.

Yes, it's a good metaphor. It was my grandmother on my mother's side, who lost three teenage sons in the second world war. She also lost a two-year old and a new born. Five of her children died.

Is that your types of death project, collecting images of scenes of death?

As far as my writing is concerned I deal with people I was close to. If I lift anonymous stories from the newspapers, they have to be spectacular in some way. My book "Friedhof der bitteren Orangen" (graveyard of bitter oranges) features a fifteen-year old boy from Southern Italy whose father attacked him with a meat cleaver. The boy had rigged up a television set to the tractor to watch the football match between Italy and Ireland. He forgot to mind the cows who wandered off and so his father killed him with the cleaver.

You were not only the "arch altar boy" of the small Carinthian parish of Kamering, you were also the altar boy of so-called anti-heimat literature. You might have been ostracised in the the village you wrote about, but you had no such problems in the literary business. Your path seemed to lead directly from the dung heap to Suhrkamp?

I have been with Suhrkamp since 1979, and so I spared myself the struggle to fine publisher. Martin Walser got hold of a copy of my first manuscript and was instantly euphoric. He passed it on to Siegfried Unseld who read it on the plane from Frankfurt to America and decided to print it immediately. It was always a luxurious position. It's only natural that my work has now been crowned, you could say, with the Büchner Prize.

The Büchner Prize thrusts your work into the centre of German-language literature. Have you ever felt like an outsider in this business?

I've never thought about it. My first book "Menschenkind" (son of man) was well received everywhere. "Menschenkind" was sort of a description of a situation. The real narrative only came with the second book "Der Ackermann aus Kärnten" (the farmer from Carinthia). Some critics wrote that it was the same thing all over again! I wasn't bothered by that. With the third book "Muttersprache" (mother tongue) they said that he stayed true to his themes. If someone writes about life or love and death in New York, he only has to move to another district and then he can write another batch of similar stories there. In Rome, too, there's enough material in the streets to write ten books about such things. But if someone allows himself to write a second or third book about life in the countryside, then it immediately means he is repeating himself.

Most people who don't know about this sort of life want a book about the church, piles of dung and a crowing cockerel, but never anything more! I have consistently ruptured this idea of literature. Where can German literature go if all the writers live in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg or Vienna's Second District? You should be happy that people are writing from all corners of the world.

When you go to the village of Kamering today, doesn't it feel a bit like a museum of your writing?

I mystified Kamering in "Ackermann aus Kärnten" But these mystifications have since changed, of course. It is world of yesteryear, but which is still very much alive for me. If you look out over the landscape from the hills of Kamering, you see isolated hamlets scattered all the way up to the edge of the forest, and you ask yourself what goes on in them. The people there still live by their own rules. Life there how we experienced it forty years ago. Worthy, in any case, of a major novel.

You looked behind the rural altars and saw the gilded wooden statues with new eyes.

It was not only a great disappointment but also the leap into a prodigious change. When I was a child, the vicar told us that there was an angel who wrote down everything we did, that we thought and felt. It scared the life out of me and pushed me to the edge of despair. I was plagued by terrible fantasies and the idea that everything was being written down, was enough to make me consider suicide. Then one day behind the altar I discovered that the angels were hollow, that they had no heart and no insides. From then on at night in my little bed I became a trembling blasphemer. I cursed God and then immediately begged his forgiveness. If you have ever been struck by Catholicism, if the church spire has ever entered your heart and exited the other side, you will never get rid of it.

As a writer who observes everything in minute detail, you have become a sort of angel yourself, one who writes everything down, all the beauty and all the horror.

First came reading. "The Shadow of the Coachman's Body" by Peter Weiss, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Hemingway, "Die Hornissen" (the hornets) by Handke – the titles are enough in themselves! Elias Canetti says: "What one is, depends on the coincidence of what one has read." I read these books back then as if I had written them myself. So profoundly did I experience them. It was a way of reading that was existentially formative. In writing I discovered where I came from. Only in writing did I discover what had happened. Had I not started writing, my life would have remained a matter of three lines. Now it is thousands of pages.

After the powerlessness in the patriarchal family, writing suddenly brought a feeling of omnipotence.

Yes, I had the weapon of language in my hand. All those impressions, and I mean that literally, I was now able to describe all the impressions made on my body and soul. What I do is also related to a huge fear of speechlessness. That even after a good dozen books, the pain of childhood, the pain of speechlessness could inflict me again. Language is a thread that you continually lose hold of, that is taken from your hand. You have to continually look for it anew.

You are quoting Peter Handke's "writing is not something one is able to do."

This is a sentence I recall often and gladly, particularly when asking myself how to structure a sentence. Writing that's only about communication would make me feel stale. It is only with the structure of a sentence that something starts to happen. A true poet might only have an very limited circle of themes, but they are infinitely variable. Peter Handke is a master of infinite variations which bring more to light that any new narrative literature.

You have travelled many of the world's continents. What did you see when you were in Rome or Varanasi, in Biel or Mexico City, far from the confines of Kamering or Klagenfurt?

I catapulted myself out of these strictures. Where my school friends and school enemies rotted. When I'd completed both my autobiographically-tinted trilogy "Das wilde Kärnten" (wild Carinthia) and "Leibeigene", which came out of a writing crisis, then the fear really consumed me. I knew as soon as I set off on my travels that it would be all about looking, about images. It was obvious that I wouldn't be going to London or Paris, but to Rome, the centre of Catholicism. The monstrances and tabernacles are much more impressive there than at home, but it was all about my past, about religion, rites, litanies, flesh and blood, archaic things. I am an eternal altar boy, but these days I try to hide the red robe as best I can.

The all-determining patriarch of your life died in 2004. In your book "Roppongi", you carried your 99-year old father to the grave. But isn't the age of the patriarch well and truly over?

Many authors, particularly Austrian authors, may never have picked up the pen, had it not been for the patriarch. But it is true, patriarchs I grew up under have all gone now. Now the authorities are much less tangible, they exercise their power more clandestinely. Our authorities were right in front of our eyes, they were there. And this meant we could learn to combat them. I'm not sure whether the authorities in today's social system are any more agreeable. They are more anonymous which means they can't be demolished. And we can't judge the impact these invisible powers will have on our children. At least I was able to name my pain.

The whole of Carithia is mourning the death of the right-wing populist Jörg Haider, a very particular breed of patriarch.

Let's leave him to rest in peace.

In "Leichnam, seine Familie belauernd." (corpse stalking his family) you speak of not wanting to die in an accident with a hearse.

The idea of being transported to the other side by a hearse is quite horrific, but it would be fitting. Even a lorry would be too banal.

Does the image of your own corpse being laid out appeal to you? Or are all the dead bodies you write about essentially your own?

Not at all any more, really. After I saw the cremations in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, I knew that I wanted to be burned. The worst thing about Catholic funerals are the coffins. That's why I so often think about John Paul II's coffin. It had such a wonderfully simple beauty.

No Josef Winkler, laid out in state at the end of his life, then?

No I don't have that in mind. In "Leibeigene" I quoted Luigi Pirandello. "Let my death pass by in silence. Let me be placed naked in a sheet."


This article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 1 November, 2008

Paul Jandl is the Austrian cultural correspondent for the NZZ.


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