“Were we fed the stories of valiant kings, knights, and other heroes—just to be vegetation?” Twenty-one-year-old student Jurek asks in Andrzej Bursa’s brief yet incredibly powerful novel Killing Auntie. Published by New Vessel Press, translated from the Polish by Wiesiek Powaga, and written “To all who once stood terrified before the dead perspective of their youth,” Killing Auntie is the only novel Bursa had the chance to complete before his sudden death in 1957, at the age of twenty-five. (Though popular myth often labels his death a suicide, in fact, Bursa died from heart disease.)
Throughout his life, Bursa showed little interest in aligning himself with any literary group or movement. Though sometimes written off as a (roughly translated) “stunt poet,” Bursa’s work, often labeled as macabre and satirical, broke with traditional form, was rife with calls for rebellion, illustrated his animosity towards organized religion, and practically guaranteed that his work would not receive much commercial success in his lifetime. His debut book of poetry was rejected, he left his job at the newspaper due to excessive censorship, and he was snubbed by awards committees honoring the achievements of young Polish writers. His first book of poetry was published in 1958 — and went on to win an award from the committee that had previously overlooked him. Killing Auntie was also posthumously published, in 1969, and was later adapted into a film by Polish director Grzegorz Królikiewicz. Since then a prestigious literary prize celebrating the work of young Polish poets has been established in Bursa’s honor. Today, Bursa is celebrated as a “cursed poet,” the term for writers whose works, due to widespread personal scandals or unpopular beliefs, were not celebrated in their time, but became wildly successful after their deaths.
In a way, Killing Auntie‘s Jurek is the ultimate representation of the tired stereotypes of the modern-day millennial: he longs for independence, but lacks the skills to even properly peel potatoes on his own. He becomes frustrated when the events he’s read about in books don’t unfold as easily in real life as they do on the page. He is haunted by his insecurities, the disillusionment of adulthood, and his mental instabilities; yet instead of pursuing treatment, he deliberately indulges in the most extreme, all-consuming distractions—sex, love, and even murder—as though the answers he seeks lie somewhere within the intense emotional experiences his actions elicit.
The novel opens in Krakow’s Capuchin monastery, where Jurek starkly confesses to having killed his aunt earlier in the morning by taking a hammer to the back of her head. Jurek admits that there was no real motive for the act, other than the small mention that he “sought peace in crime.” He admits to the crime not out of guilt, remorse, or even from a desire to receive words of comfort from the priest; instead, he simply wants to be the ultimate sinner. In confessing, Jurek also wishes to expose the hypocrisy of the priest, for whom Jurek’s confession will “open a difficult, glorious path to the salvation of a murderer” and will allow the priest to be “elevated…to the level of a missionary converting cannibals, of a Saint Hieronymus taking a lion.” (Jurek’s intentions seem to work, as he mentions that the voice of the “delighted” priest “trembled with the anxiety of a parting lover” as he leaves the monastery.)
Indeed, keeping up appearances—attending his lectures, drinking vodka with his friends after class, and pursuing women—seems far more important to Jurek than properly disposing of Auntie’s body, a task at which Jurek is completely, often hilariously, incompetent. While on a train to a neighboring city (with a few severed body parts in tow) Jurek meets Teresa, the only person who both believes his confession and helps him dispose of what remains of Auntie. Teresa provides the perfect, easy-to-rationalize form of “productive procrastination” Jurek is looking for. Completely consumed by love, which has helped him to “recover my faith in life,” can Jurek really be blamed for putting Auntie on the back burner once again? After all, why clean up after an old murder when one could be in the arms of a lover?
Perhaps the novel’s dark absurdity, and the abrupt turns it takes, were influenced not only by the ever-shifting circumstances of Bursa’s life, but also by Poland’s chaotic political situation from the 1930s to the 50s. Born in Krakow in 1932, Bursa would live through the 1939 Soviet Invasion of Poland, the Great Purge of Stalin and countless other acts of Soviet repression and violence, World War II, the formation of the Polish People’s Republic, and the corruption of postwar communist Poland. A student of journalism and Bulgarian language and literature at the Jagiellonian University of Krakow, Bursa became a strong critic of communism, expressing his disgust with those members of society who blindly followed the rules of the party without questioning authority. In a translation of his poem “Complaint” by Kevin Christianson and Halina Ablamowicz, published in Guernica Magazine, Bursa addresses the Minister of Justice, writing:
The majority of State-run and social institutions
are insults to me,
almost every one of the citizens of our state
is an insult directly aimed at me.
Really, not just once do I ask myself for whom was it so vital to construct so
enormous a machine
with architecture, a military, law and crime,
so that it would
personally plague ME.
His distrust of the communist party caused Bursa considerable strain at home: his father was such a staunch supporter of Communism that Bursa’s mother, a strong Catholic, eventually divorced him, intensifying the already-present ideological conflict between father and son. In spite of his discontent, Bursa managed to find some happiness in his 1952 marriage to fellow student Louise Szemioth, and soon after, the couple had a son.
Literarily, Bursa was also opposed to the societal idolization of poets and writers as the ultimate figures of intellectual authority, and showed a particular disgust for socialist realism. Though Bursa’s literary career lasted for only three years (to make ends meet, he worked as a journalist for the newspaper Dziennik Polski while pursuing his creative work) his naturalist and, at times, absurd style of writing has made him a cult figure within the literature of “modern times.” Thanks to the Thaw of Soviet Repression, the works of these “modern times” Polish writers, all of whom developed around 1956 (after the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”), became widely read.
Like the leaders of his day, Jurek faces few consequences for his actions, aside from occasional and inconvenient bouts of anxiety. For Jurek, getting away with murder has been unbelievably easy, his crime having a shockingly minimal impact on his life. He views the “nagging” corpse as more of an annoyance and burden than anything, even admitting that he is “getting bored with it.” The reduction of such extreme violence to nothing more than a mundane chore, on par with making the bed and as commonplace as smoking a cigarette, surely reflects Bursa’s own disdain for the casual killings of the Stalinist regime. Yes, murders are unfortunate, but these things must happen in order for things to progress. Yes, disposing of bodies is messy and time-consuming, but there is an art form to figuring out how to do so efficiently and with little inconvenience.
This exploration of the mundanity, and the meticulousness, of violence remains a popular subject today. For example, there are many parallels between Bursa and the Austrian director Michael Haneke. In his film Benny’s Video, Haneke depicts a set of parents so desperate to cover up a similarly indifferent murder committed by their son, that they chop up the body and flush it, piece by piece, down the toilet. Haneke is also known for depicting unrelenting, lengthy acts of violence in his films, as a way of making his audience question why they are invested so invested so investing in watching such cruelties. Similar sentiments might be awakened by Bursa’s depictions of the sawing off of legs, the tearing up body parts in meat grinders, and Jurek’s cheery trips to the post office, carting along his Aunt’s limbs to mail off.
In his attempt to defeat the corpse, which he has named a “strong opponent,” Jurek must also deal with some challenging new practicalities: his financial situation, (though he can always sell some of Auntie’s jewelry or gold teeth), how to feed himself (“Auntie always prepared our meals”), and, after the appropriate time has passed, how to report Auntie’s disappearance to the authorities. To help him navigate these daunting issues, Jurek turns to literature. An apparently somewhat prolific reader, he quickly realizes that even the finest works on his University syllabus will not be of much help to him. Though Jurek compares himself to Hamlet (“Unlike thousands of other native Hamlets, I have at my disposal a real skull”), imagines himself in the hell fires of Dante’s Inferno, spouts off drunkenly about Goethe, and references Cerberus, the Greek guardian of the underworld—he admits that he finds the spots of blood he spilled on the sink while slicing up Auntie’s corpse “too literary.” Far from becoming the “valiant king” of his own story, Jurek finds that he can barely take care of himself.
Still, no matter how much of an inconvenience Auntie’s corpse proves to be, Jurek never tries to rationalize his reasons for the murder, nor does he want his actions to be interpreted as any sort of symbolic political or personal act, saying “‘I simply killed…I didn’t kill to enrich myself, or out of revenge.'” He sees no correlation between himself and the murderers he reads about in the newspapers—much like Stalin seemingly viewed his purges as more of a public service than a genocide. Instead, Jurek argues, “Killing Auntie was in my case a result of so many interlocking mental states, of complexes and depression that I had analyzed and digested so many times before…”
Indeed, there is much about Jurek’s mental state that readers simply do not know. Indeterminate amounts of time pass between scenes, and the suspiciously fortunate interactions Jurek has with other characters make us question first the ignorance of the characters, and, after a time, Jurek’s “interlocking mental states.” When housewives smell something burning and see smoke from the street (Jurek, in trying to burn a piece of the corpse inside the stove, has fallen asleep on the job) could they really not recognize the scent of burning flesh? How could they overlook a detached human foot when it falls out of the stove as they are attempting to clean it? And what about the unexpected visit from Auntie’s dependents, her mother and sister, who swear they see a body in the bathtub, but whom Jurek is easily able to fool? (In an especially gruesome twist, Auntie’s family members also make a midnight snack of the “meat” in the bathtub, with Auntie’s mother losing her false teeth while gnawing on her daughter’s corpse.) Even when a drunken Jurek confesses his crime to his friends, (“‘I have a corpse at home!'”) no one believes him. So, he does what any indifferent murderer would: he takes to the streets of Krakow, shouting “‘I am free through murder!’ and several other incriminating statements. But when he is immediately arrested, it is not on suspicion of murder, but rather because he is causing a public disturbance. The police release him, with a tongue cluck about how unfortunate it is to see a student behave in such a way. Of course, such an outcome is absurd. No one could possibly murder, confess, leave the body in plain sight, and still manage to avoid any punishment (unless, that is, one is a politician).
Still, perhaps Jurek really is as lucky as he says he is; and as the novel progresses, one cannot help cheering Jurek on, hoping that he makes it to his lecture on time, gets the girl, and succeeds in putting this whole messy business of murder behind him. Yet his totally uninterrupted plans raise the question: Are the strange visions he sees, and the completely oblivious people he meets, real—or are they simply manifestations of Jurek’s fragile mind?
But it is Jurek’s simultaneous eagerness to arrive at independence while coming to terms with the disillusionment that accompanies the end of youth that makes the novel an interesting—and delightfully grim—coming-of-age tale. Jurek admits that he has killed his Auntie out of a desire to speed up the process of entering adulthood, saying “Killing my aunt, I deprived myself of my main means of support.” Perhaps he feels that, as long as Auntie is alive, he is just another dependent, like her mother and sister, and that he can never truly live his own life with her inquiring about his lectures, cooking for him, and filling the role of the mother figure that Jurek does not have. After he kills Auntie, he feels “rested, strong, young, and independent.” Yet he remains, in most aspects of his life, completely incompetent. He is exhausted by minimal accomplishments, he has no sense of priorities, he is careless with the most important and potentially life-altering actions. He knows that eventually, he’ll have to seek some form of “suitable, not-too-absorbing employment,” but, as with every responsibility Jurek has, that day seems far off. Even though he thought that killing Auntie would seamlessly plunge him into an unencumbered adulthood, Jurek instead transitions to the world outside the university using the same method with which he disposes of Auntie’s corpse: piece by piece.
The senselessness and certainty with which Jurek kills Auntie, without any remorse for the crime and with only occasional, half-hearted self-reflection, is in alignment with Bursa’s views on those who blindly accepted the totalitarianism of the Stalinist regime. Those who commit atrocities seem, absurdly and against all rational odds, to get off scot-free. Still, by the shocking final few pages of the novel, Bursa seems not quite as cynical, and not quite so hopeless, as he seemed to so desperately want to make himself out to be. Did Jurek really commit senseless acts of violence in order to catapult himself into adulthood? Or is his crime a fantasy—and if so, where has Auntie gone?