Recently Wiesiek Powaga, the translator of Polish author Andrzej Bursa’s powerhouse of a novel, Killing Auntie, spoke with me about the life of the young writer, the rumors surrounding his death, and the influence Dostoevsky had on his prose. Along with translating Bursa, Powaga has also translated letters by Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz, an anthology of Polish fantasy writing, poetry, drama and a novel by Andrzej Stasiuk. We discussed the processes of and inspiration behind his translations, how he first discovered Bursa, and his time as a wigmaker at the Warsaw Opera.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about the historical era in which Andrezj Bursa was writing? Bursa’s writings would most likely have been informed by the Stalinist era, repression, life after World War Two — do you think Killing Auntie is a reaction to that in some ways? How did what was happening influence Bursa’s writing?
This is a big one, this is where Bursology should begin. To answer these questions in depth and unequivocally would be to give Bursa’s writing a solid critical foundation. Yet, the longer I think about it, the flimsier that foundation feels. Sure, WWII with its horrors, the ice age of Stalin’s years and the thaw that came after – they definitely had a huge forming influence on the young Bursa and his writing. But then they left their mark on the whole generation of Polish writers and poets, in fact on the whole Polish literature after 1945. But while WWII and Stalinism branded each and every one of them, the results are as individual and varied as their backgrounds, age and poetic sensibilities – from Miłosz and Baczyński, through Różewicz and Herbert, to Grochowiak, Białoszewski and Szymborska, just to mention a few better known names.
Looking at Bursa’s writing in this context is to see it reflecting them all; or looking at it from the other end, it’s like an all-gathering lens. Thanks to the strength of his creative urge, his industry and ambition, his talent managed to explore in an incredibly short time – barely 3 years – a hugely varied formal and stylistic range of expression, leaving as a result a fairly sizeable body of work. That it strikes us now as violent, anti-romantic, sickly black-humored, grotesque, etc. Perhaps he hasn’t had the time to work through these emotions and develop a more mature, balanced poetics? Because he was younger than the others mentioned above? Because he knew he had a potentially fatal cardiac defect which could kill him at any time? Hard to tell. But at least according Jan Guntner, his close friend and the co-founder of the Carbuncle, the Theatre of Horrors, the main fuel of Bursa’s Rimbaudian eruption was rebellion pure and simple. And because it happened in that particular time and place it was natural it had acquired that particular dark color and bitter or sometimes bitter-sweet flavor. And as Guntner points out – because they happened to be born in “houses with books and pianos,” it was natural too he had picked up his literary threads from Lautreamont and Apollinaire and ran it through all the crazy -isms of the interwar to connect them with the post-war, post-Auschwitz and freshly post-Stalinist horrors.
Killing Auntie might be perhaps the best example of fusing those literary inspirations, certainly the most elaborate and mature attempt of filtering them through personal experience and war-scarred sensibility. The story is apparently a deliberate stab at Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its founding idea of a senseless murder. Guntner, who regularly discussed with Bursa his work in progress, claims Bursa was interested in upgrading or rather distilling Dostoyevsky’s idea from an obviously loaded moral treatise to a purely amoral act. Was it possible, even as a thought experiment? Forget killing the vermin-pawnbroker for the greater good of society or one’s own empowerment. Let’s kill in a way that’s no good to anyone and at the same time not for the hell of it. Was it possible to push the idea to the point of absurd? Would it be the same as the senseless slaughter and nihilistic disregard for human life he thought he saw when growing up?
Guntner claims the actual ending is a cop out, that originally Bursa wanted to take the idea to its darkest possible conclusions but then lost his nerve, worried no one would want to publish such a book. It’s possible too, he simply could not take the story to such a dark place or could not find his way there, and decided to lift the moral experiment to another level and instead of dark conclusions showed us a mirror. Personally I like that ending.
2) Very little information is available in English about Bursa’s life. How did the rumors about his suicide get started, when in reality he died from heart disease at 25?
As for the suicide rumours, in the circumstances they seemed to be the most logical, practically irresistible explanation for the sudden death of a young poet. Given his dark rebellious work which had already been gaining some popularity in the small circle of his friends, who knew he had a problem having his first volume of poetry accepted by a publisher but who knew nothing of his congenital heart defect – a suicide of a promising poet looked like the best bet. The rumours persisted despite a clarification published in the press by his widow together with the death certificate clearly stating the cause of death. However the cold statement of fact lost the fight with the legend, especially after publication of “And” (short for Andrzej) a story by Stanisław Czycz, in which a young, up and coming poet, obsessing about death, overwhelmed by the hypocrisy of the world which forces him to play games, who suddenly dies. And even though the story doesn’t clearly say the death was a suicide, its evocative and compelling narrative fixed the myth for years to come.
3) How did you discover Bursa? Is his poetry/prose a household name in Poland, or is he more a part of the underground scene? What made you decide to translate Killing Auntie into English, and how did you discover New Vessel Press? How long did the translation process take?
I was introduced to Bursa by my school librarian. I was 16-17, she was an elderly lady who for some reason took a liking to me. I wasn’t a frequent borrower at my school library, having already developed my own reading list way outside the school curriculum. I suspect it was my looks or perhaps school reputation – I was one of few students who insisted on growing long hair, against the school’s rules, smoked cigarettes at class breaks just outside the school, had problems with the compulsory military propaedeutic classes etc – in short a bit of a rebel. Yet that lady somehow took a shine to me and at some point started recommending me books which, while not illegal or banned, were at best outside the “school recommended,” or simply hard to get. That’s how I was introduced to Witold Gombrowicz, Pawel Jasienica (a Polish Jewish historian whose books had fallen out of favor after 1968) or Antoni Kępinski, a Polish psychiatrist one of the early developers of humanist approach to psychiatry etc. Bursa’s book, I think the first Collected Works published in 1973, was one of the first she gave me. I was hooked from the word go: I thought he spoke for me. It wasn’t Herbert’s crystal line, or Białoszewski’s play with words, or Grochowiak’s epiphany of ugliness – it was all of them rolled into one, his verse throbbed with youthful anger, had the cheek and the brow, it was irreverent and funny, I felt his voice was mine. When I grew up to be a translator I wanted to pay homage to that voice, and to old librarians with a soft spot for school rebels.
That’s the main reason that after Sara’s House, a collection of Grabiński’s short stories – another hero of my nostalgic reading list – I talked my publisher friend Charles Boyle of CBeditions into publishing Bursa’s collected works. Bursa’s work has been appearing here and there since the 1960s, mostly his poetry, but I wanted to show him as a rounded and mature writer. A few years after CBeditions published Killing Auntie and other Work, New Vessel Press discovered it and realized it was an ideal position for their “rebel prose” list.
4) Beyond your work as a translator, I am thrilled to hear about your work as a wig-maker and makeup artist at the Warsaw Opera House! Are you still involved with the opera in any capacity, and what made you make the switch to translation?
My encounter with wig-making has the same hallmarks as Bursa’s involvement with Bulgarian philology – I needed to give the People’s Army the slip. I passed my exams to study psychology at the Warsaw University but despite quite a good mark I didn’t get the place and was at a dangerously loose end, at least from the perspective of the Polish Army. After presenting my portfolio of drawings at the newly established College of Film and Theatre Techniques I was accepted and gave a huge sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge I was safe for the next two years. I greatly enjoyed my time there. For not only that I discovered I was quite good at wig-making (something I would have never discovered otherwise, I suspect) I found myself in a good company – a handful of boys who had failed their entry exams for art colleges and lots of lovely girls. We hung out together talking about books, films and music. We were placed at various theatres or television studios, or at the opera to learn and practice the craft, and where we had a privileged backdoor access to the kitchen where they cooked the art of spectacle. I was just then discovering the opera and was quite happy to be placed at the Warsaw National Opera House, a great theatre with many great singers and musicians, and to this day I feel proud my three wigs appeared in the production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (the choir, but still).
(See featured image for a recently unearthed wig design.)
5) Are you working on any translations now? What other Polish authors that perhaps go under-recognized in America would you suggest to our readers? And where can our readers find more of your work?
Yes, I’m working on a couple of new – and old – pieces. After a few years’ break I’ve returned to translation, a couple of newly discovered books and authors, and the old ones, some of them already done but which are worth revisiting and relaunching, and some old ones which I had been meaning to do for years but never had the time to do. Among the new discoveries is Ksawery Pruszynski, the grandaddy of Polish school of reportage, which later produced such masters like Hanna Krall and Ryszard Kapuściński. It was Kapuściński who said that thanks to Pruszyński reportage became not just a product of the eye but also of the mind. And indeed, Pruszyński’s Inside Red Spain is not just a riveting first-hand witness account of the Spanish Civil War – from the revolutionary Barcelona, through the siege of Madrid to the visit in the Basque Country before its fall to Franco – but an extended rumination on the mechanics of revolution – historical, political or economic, full of prophetic insights on the future of communism and capitalism, Marxism and Islam, or even the role of royal mothers and their babies in modern democracies! An extract of the book will appear in an anthology prepared for the occasion of the 80th anniversary of Spanish War but certainly the whole book deserves a wider recognition.
There are lots of other books and writers still locked up in the Polish cupboard, waiting to be discovered by the great English reading public but I can’t just leave out one my recent discoveries, an illustrious addition to the legend of the Great Mad Pole, rooted in the story of Benedictus Polonus, a guy who journeyed to Guyuk, the Mongol Khan, 50 years before Marco Polo, growing through Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript and Conrad-Korzeniowski, and flowering with Pruszyński and Kapuściński: Kazimierz Nowak’s “Around Africa in Five Years – on Bicycle. 1931-1936”, is an account of the amazing, first ever and probably never repeated bicycle tour, completed from A to Z at the time when huge swathes of Black Continent were still an impenetrable terra incognita – for most whites at least – and when bicycle has barely acquired the status – fully recognised in our day – of an instrument of leisure and adventure. One of those great fat book illustrated with black and white photographs, it comprises Nowak’s five years worth of dispatches to the Polish newspaper, which together with the Polish bicycle tyres producer – ! – sponsored the escapade. The book gives a privileged view into the past, not so distant historically but still on the cultural event horizon, at times exuding the atmosphere of Bowles’ Sheltered Sky.
6) Is there a certain literary movement/literature of a specific country, aside of course from Poland, that you are particularly drawn to?
No, there isn’t any specific movement or literary genre of any particular age or country that I’m especially “drawn to”. I just like a good read – be it a horror story by Stephen King’s or Grabiński’s, American poetry of O’Hara and Ashbury, or the next volume of Knausgard, even if for me it’s only the 2nd, fiction and non-fiction. Basically I like reading stuff which can still inform and help understand the here and now. And it’s fun while at it. Can’t resist mentioning my latest discovery – the Polish translation of Proust by Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński from the late 1930s. Having read my first Proust in English I must have missed his wonderful subtle but sharp sense of humour – brilliant and refreshing.
Wiesiek Powaga was born in Poland and after the imposition of martial law of 1981 settled in London. He is a translator and author. Among his translations are letters of Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz, an anthology of Polish fantasy writing, poetry, drama and a novel by Andrzej Stasiuk. He has written for television and trained as a make-up artist and a wig-maker at the Warsaw Opera House. He currently divides his time between London and Warsaw, where he looks after his elderly mother and favorite auntie.