by Andrzej Bursa
translated by Wiesiek Powaga
New Vessel Press, 107 pages
reviewed by Jacqueline Kharouf
Andrzej Bursa was born in Krakow on March 21, 1932, seven years before the German invasion of Poland. He died of congenital heart failure at age twenty-five on November 15, 1957, just after Poland began to overthrow its totalitarian system of Communist rule. Bursa lived in a time that shifted dramatically from extreme suppression to extreme expression, misinformation and propaganda to jazz and poetry. His literary career began on the heels of the post-war period of Polish literature noted for an emphasis on “Socialist Realism,” but was cut short at the emergence of an era of national sovereignty that prompted an explosion of avant-garde art, performance, literature, and music.
Bursa’s only novel, Killing Auntie, was not published during his lifetime. The novel takes place over the course of a week, during which a young man named Jurek whacks his aunt in the head with a hammer and then attempts to rid himself of her corpse, a more difficult task than he imagines. While it doesn’t ever do anything, or say anything, everything Jurek does is in reaction to the corpse. This is the black humor of the story, which could also be a foil to the atmosphere of 1950s Poland, a time that fluctuated from the enforcement of Soviet sponsored police terror, censorship, and economic strife to the reversal (or decrease) of such policies.
Even without knowing the novel’s political context, Killing Auntie may be understood and appreciated for its stark and unapologetic approach to the (frankly) absurd trajectory of adulthood. Jurek, orphaned, disaffected, and now living on his own, longs for real purpose: “Today for the first time I realized I had no purpose. I went out without a reason. These purposeless, lonely walks were murderous. I knew that.” Jurek’s story is not dark for the sake of darkness (although killing your aunt in cold blood is pretty dark), but to subvert the idea that we all grow up to make families, buy groceries, and pay bills because these are aspirations for a lifetime of happiness. Jurek does not kill his aunt because he hates her. He kills her to have a purpose.
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