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'The Autopsy' by Georg Heym

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Translated and introduced by Vijay Khurana


The body is too often neglected in fiction, with writers eliding not only its erotics but its fragility and foulness, not to mention its ultimate decomposition. Surely these are interesting possibilities when it comes to achieving whatever it is a story is supposed to achieve. As the unforgettable Georgie in Denis Johnson’s ‘Emergency’ rightly points out, ‘There’s so much goop inside of us, man, and it all wants to get out.’ In ‘The Autopsy’, Georg Heym doesn’t shy away from depicting the sight – or the smells, or indeed the goop – of death. A corpse lies in an operating theatre, about to undergo the brutal indignity of an autopsy. Heym has an obsessive focus on organs and fluids, and on the interplay between nightmarish and natural imagery, such that the story’s commitment to depicting the body after death goes beyond the grotesque, taking on an almost celebratory sense of wonder. These are things that have led to Heym’s reputation as a pioneer of expressionistic writing, and I can’t help but wonder what else he might have created had he not died in 1912, at the age of 24, while ice-skating on the outskirts of Berlin.

To pack so much meaning and possibility into a story of this length is astounding, but it is also somehow natural, a good short story’s meat and drink: ‘The Autopsy’ presents the bodily reality of death, yet it manages to also dangle before us undying love and invincible joy, all while satirizing the inhumanity of medical officialdom.

I can’t think of a better way to get acquainted with a story than by translating it. I spent a good deal of time thinking about Heym’s use of colour. There seems to be a triangular relationship of sorts, with the colours of fire and sunset teaming up with those of the vividly decaying corpse, in resistance against the austere whiteness of the doctors and their morgue. There is something more than a little anti-authoritarian in it, a struggle against the most conclusive authority of all. One other translator’s note: in the early twentieth century, ‘fencing scars’ (Schmisse) were considered badges of honour and markers of bravery among former members of the German-speaking world’s male student societies, for whom duelling was a mania.

The Autopsy

The dead man lay alone and naked on a white table in the large theatre, in the oppressive whiteness, the cruel austerity of the operating theatre, where the screams of unending agony still seemed to tremble.

The noon sun blanketed him, rousing the livor mortis on his forehead; it conjured a bright green from his naked belly and blew it up like a large water bladder.

His abdomen resembled the chalice of an enormous, shimmering flower, some mysterious plant from the jungles of India which someone had shyly placed at the altar of death.

Magnificent reds and blues spread along his loins, and in the heat, like a ploughed furrow, the large red wound below his navel slowly burst, giving off a horrible odour.

The doctors entered: a few friendly men in white gowns, with fencing scars and gold pince-nez.

They approached the dead man and looked him over with interest, talking in their scientific way.

From the white cabinets they took out their dissecting tools: white boxes full of hammers, bone saws with strong teeth, files, hideous rows of pincers, and small instrument sets filled with huge needles that seemed, like crooked vulture beaks, to scream eternally for flesh.

They set about their hideous craft. They resembled horrible torturers as the blood streamed over their hands and they plunged them deeper and deeper into the cold corpse, fetching out its contents, just like white chefs gutting a goose.

The yellow-green snakes of intestines coiled around their arms, and the faeces dripped over their gowns, a warm, putrid liquid. When they lanced the bladder the cold urine inside shimmered like a yellow wine. They poured it into large bowls; its stink was sharp and corrosive as ammonia.

But the dead man slept. Patiently, he let himself be wrenched this way and that, let his hair be tugged this way and that – he slept.

And while the hammers thundered against his head, there woke in him a dream, a remnant of love, like a torch shining into his night.

Outside the big window a big wide sky unfurled, filled with little white clouds which swam in the light, in the stillness of the afternoon, like little white gods. And the swallows flew high into the blue, tremulous in the warm July sun.

The black blood of death ran down the blue rot of his forehead, evaporating in the heat into a horrible cloud. The decay of death crept its motley claws across him. His skin began to liquify, and his belly grew as white as an eel’s beneath the greedy fingers of the doctors, who bathed their arms to the elbows in his wet flesh.

Decay pulled the dead man’s mouth apart, and he seemed to smile. He was dreaming of a blissful star, of a fragrant summer’s night. His disintegrating lips trembled as though from a fleeting kiss.

‘How I love you. I loved you so much. Shall I tell you how I love you? As you walked through the poppy fields – yourself a fragrant poppy flame – you had drunk the whole evening up. And your dress, billowing at your ankles, was like a wave of fire in the setting sun. But your head turned in the light and your hair still burned, ablaze from all my kisses.

‘On you went, always looking around for me. And for a long time, the lantern in your hand swung like a glowing rose in the twilight.

‘I will see you tomorrow. Here, beneath the chapel window, here, where the candlelight pours out and turns your hair into a forest of gold, here, where the daffodils nestle at your ankles, tenderly, like tender kisses.

‘I will see you again every evening, at the hour of dusk. We shall never part. How I love you! Shall I tell you how I love you?’

And on his white morgue table the dead man trembled softly in his bliss, as the iron chisels in the hands of the doctors broke open the side of his skull.

Vijay Khurana's debut novel, The Passenger Seat, is shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions/New Directions/Giramondo Novel Prize. His short fiction has been published in The Guardian, 3:AM, Lighthouse, and NOON. He lives in Berlin.

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