Reviewing Killing Auntie by Andrzej Bursa3 min read
The first and only novel of Andrzej Bursa, Killing Auntie tells the absurd story of a character who is all too familiar to a young reader (until the parricide) – he is at the encore of adolescence and the preview of adulthood, lost, wary, and hopeless. He expresses what so many of us have felt: “Were we fed the stories of valiant kings, knights and other heroes – just to be vegetation? Why have I been condemned to vegetation?” The power in this line is somewhat terrifying as it succinctly summarises the futility of life which Killing Auntie’s main character, Jurek dreads and is what makes this short book the gripping story it is.
Killing Auntie was first published in Poland in 1969, but a contemporary reader cannot help but acknowledge the themes of the story reflected in the current state of the world: a unique time of conflicting brutality and utter boredom. For us, the brutality is the pandemic that has uprooted the way we live, and the boredom of the new normal we must endure. However, for Jurek, his incessant apathy for life was the very cause of his own brutality – that is, murdering and defiling the corpse of his only caregiver, his Auntie.
The plot of the story is inane and the aforementioned contrast of boredom and brutality is mirrored in many other conflicting aspects in the book: the wit of the dialogue, the graphic description of the young man murdering, cutting up, and attempting to house his Auntie’s dead rotting body. And whilst this is a novel about murder, it is undoubtedly not a murder novel.
Jurek concedes that he has murdered his maternal aunt, but does not identify as a murderer. Instead he justifies his act as “the result of so many interlocking mental states, of complexes and depression”. That makes the narrative all the more interesting since we are not reading the story of a serial killer, a psychopath, a maniac, but simply a young person whose unavailing life presented him with something to do that day.
Andrzej Bursa was born in Kraków in 1932 and lived only 25 years, but placing that short life in the historical context of Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland, Stalin’s Purges of the 1940s, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the socio-economic defeats of the Polish People’s Republic, Bursa’s dark themes and ominous writing style are understood with a deeper meaning.
However, even without the knowledge of the author’s background, this book presents a compelling story of many layers. Most notably the irony that when Jurek’s boredom pushes him over the edge to murder, his life starts to gift him with other, more socially acceptable ways to defeat his ennui such as falling in love, getting drunk with friends, and hosting other, more alive, family members. Eventually the initial result of boredom becomes the character’s most burdened aspect of life as he must deal with the liability of Auntie’s corpse in his bathtub, which eventually encumbers him more than his life ever had before. A book of absurdist twists, dark humour, and a fast-paced telling of a slow life, Killing Auntie gives us a productive and non-murderous answer to our own lives’ dissatisfactions.
Book details: Bursa, Andrzej. Killing Auntie. New Vessel Press, 2015 (first published 1969). It is available to buy here